Friday, October 19, 2007

The Brightest Supernova So Far

SN 2006gy: Discovery of the most luminous supernova ever recorded, powered by the death of an extremely massive star like Eta Carinae
We report our discovery and observations of the peculiar Type IIn supernova SN2006gy in NGC1260, revealing that it reached a peak magnitude of -22, making it the most luminous supernova ever recorded. It is not yet clear what powers the total radiated energy of 1e51 erg, but we argue that any mechanism -- thermal emission, circumstellar interaction, or 56Ni decay -- requires a very massive progenitor star. The circumstellar interaction hypothesis would require truly exceptional conditions around the star probably experienced an LBV eruption like the 19th century eruption of eta Carinae. Alternatively, radioactive decay of 56Ni may be a less objectionable hypothesis. That power source would imply a large Ni mass of 22 Msun, requiring that SN2006gy was a pair-instability supernova where the star's core was obliterated. SN2006gy is the first supernova for which we have good reason to suspect a pair-instability explosion. Based on a number of lines of evidence, we rule out the hypothesis that SN 2006gy was a ``Type IIa'' event. Instead, we propose that the progenitor may have been a very massive evolved object like eta Carinae that, contrary to expectations, failed to completely shed its massive hydrogen envelope before it died. Our interpretation of SN2006gy implies that the most massive stars can explode earlier than expected, during the LBV phase, preventing them from ever becoming Wolf-Rayet stars. SN2006gy also suggests that the most massive stars can create brilliant supernovae instead of dying ignominious deaths through direct collapse to a black hole.

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