Monday, January 11, 2010

Pair-Instability Supernovas

Supernova 2007bi as a pair-instability explosion
Stars with initial masses 10 M_{solar} < M_{initial} < 100 M_{solar} fuse progressively heavier elements in their centres, up to inert iron. The core then gravitationally collapses to a neutron star or a black hole, leading to an explosion -- an iron-core-collapse supernova (SN). In contrast, extremely massive stars (M_{initial} > 140 M_{solar}), if such exist, have oxygen cores which exceed M_{core} = 50 M_{solar}. There, high temperatures are reached at relatively low densities. Conversion of energetic, pressure-supporting photons into electron-positron pairs occurs prior to oxygen ignition, and leads to a violent contraction that triggers a catastrophic nuclear explosion. Tremendous energies (>~ 10^{52} erg) are released, completely unbinding the star in a pair-instability SN (PISN), with no compact remnant. Transitional objects with 100 M_{solar} < M_{initial} < 140 M_{solar}, which end up as iron-core-collapse supernovae following violent mass ejections, perhaps due to short instances of the pair instability, may have been identified. However, genuine PISNe, perhaps common in the early Universe, have not been observed to date. Here, we present our discovery of SN 2007bi, a luminous, slowly evolving supernova located within a dwarf galaxy (~1% the size of the Milky Way). We measure the exploding core mass to be likely ~100 M_{solar}, in which case theory unambiguously predicts a PISN outcome. We show that >3 M_{solar} of radioactive 56Ni were synthesized, and that our observations are well fit by PISN models. A PISN explosion in the local Universe indicates that nearby dwarf galaxies probably host extremely massive stars, above the apparent Galactic limit, perhaps resulting from star formation processes similar to those that created the first stars in the Universe.

Simulated view of a black hole

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