AST 103


The Extrasolar Universe











A supernova (plural: supernovae or supernovas) is a stellar explosion. They are extremely luminous and cause a burst of radiation that often briefly outshines an entire galaxy before fading from view over several weeks or months. During this short interval, a supernova can radiate as much energy as the Sun could emit over its life span.[1] The explosion expels much or all of a star's material[2] at a velocity of up to a tenth the speed of light, driving a shock wave into the surrounding interstellar medium. This shock wave sweeps up an expanding shell of gas and dust called a supernova remnant.

Several types of supernovae exist that may be triggered in one of two ways, involving either turning off or suddenly turning on the production of energy through nuclear fusion. After the core of an aging massive star ceases to generate energy from nuclear fusion, it may undergo sudden gravitational collapse into a neutron star or black hole, releasing gravitational potential energy that heats and expels the star's outer layers. Alternatively, a white dwarf star may accumulate sufficient material from a stellar companion (usually through accretion, rarely via a merger) to raise its core temperature enough to ignite carbon fusion, at which point it undergoes runaway nuclear fusion, completely disrupting it. Stellar cores whose furnaces have permanently gone out collapse when their masses exceed the Chandrasekhar limit, while accreting white dwarfs ignite as they approach this limit (roughly 1.38[3] times the mass of the Sun). White dwarfs are also subject to a different, much smaller type of thermonuclear explosion fueled by hydrogen on their surfaces called a nova. Solitary stars with a mass below approximately nine[4] solar masses, such as the Sun itself, evolve into white dwarfs without ever becoming supernovae.

On average, supernovae occur about once every 50 years in a galaxy the size of the Milky Way[5] and play a significant role in enriching the interstellar medium with heavy elements. Furthermore, the expanding shock waves from supernova explosions can trigger the formation of new stars.[6]

Nova (plural novae) means "new" in Latin, referring to what appears to be a very bright new star shining in the celestial sphere; the prefix "super-" distinguishes supernovae from ordinary novae, which also involve a star increasing in brightness, though to a lesser extent and through a different mechanism. According to Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, the word supernova was first used in print in 1926.

Supernovae are a key source of elements heavier than oxygen. These elements are produced by nuclear fusion (for iron-56 and lighter elements), and by nucleosynthesis during the supernova explosion for elements heavier than iron. Supernova are the most likely, although not undisputed, candidate sites for the r-process, which is a rapid form of nucleosynthesis that occurs under conditions of high temperature and high density of neutrons. The reactions produce highly unstable nuclei that are rich in neutrons. These forms are unstable and rapidly beta decay into more stable forms.

The r-process reaction, which is likely to occur in type II supernovae, produces about half of all the element abundance beyond iron, including plutonium, uranium and californium.[74] The only other major competing process for producing elements heavier than iron is the s-process in large, old red giant stars, which produces these elements much more slowly, and which cannot produce elements heavier than lead.[75]

The remnant of a supernova explosion consists of a compact object and a rapidly expanding shock wave of material. This cloud of material sweeps up the surrounding interstellar medium during a free expansion phase, which can last for up to two centuries. The wave then gradually undergoes a period of adiabatic expansion, and will slowly cool and mix with the surrounding interstellar medium over a period of about 10,000 years.[76]

In standard astronomy, the Big Bang produced hydrogen, helium, and traces of lithium, while all heavier elements are synthesized in stars and supernovae. Supernovae tend to enrich the surrounding interstellar medium with metals, which for astronomers means all of the elements other than hydrogen and helium and is a different definition than that used in chemistry.

These injected elements ultimately enrich the molecular clouds that are the sites of star formation.[77] Thus, each stellar generation has a slightly different composition, going from an almost pure mixture of hydrogen and helium to a more metal-rich composition. Supernovae are the dominant mechanism for distributing these heavier elements, which are formed in a star during its period of nuclear fusion, throughout space. The different abundances of elements in the material that forms a star have important influences on the star's life, and may decisively influence the possibility of having planets orbiting it.

The kinetic energy of an expanding supernova remnant can trigger star formation due to compression of nearby, dense molecular clouds in space. The increase in turbulent pressure can also prevent star formation if the cloud is unable to lose the excess energy.[78]

Evidence from daughter products of short-lived radioactive isotopes shows that a nearby supernova helped determine the composition of the Solar System 4.5 billion years ago, and may even have triggered the formation of this system.[79] Supernova production of heavy elements over astronomic periods of time ultimately made the chemistry of life on Earth possible.

A near-Earth supernova is an explosion resulting from the death of a star that occurs close enough to the Earth (roughly fewer than 100 light-years away) to have noticeable effects on its biosphere. Gamma rays are responsible for most of the adverse effects a supernova can have on a living terrestrial planet. In Earth's case, gamma rays induce a chemical reaction in the upper atmosphere, converting molecular nitrogen into nitrogen oxides, depleting the ozone layer enough to expose the surface to harmful solar and cosmic radiation. The gamma ray burst from a nearby supernova explosion has been proposed as the cause of the end Ordovician extinction, which resulted in the death of nearly 60% of the oceanic life on Earth.[80]

Speculation as to the effects of a nearby supernova on Earth often focuses on large stars as Type II supernova candidates. Several prominent stars within a few hundred light years from the Sun are candidates for becoming supernovae in as little as a millennium. One example is Betelgeuse, a red supergiant 427 light-years from Earth.[81] Though spectacular, these "predictable" supernovae are thought to have little potential to affect Earth.

Recent estimates predict that a Type II supernova would have to be closer than eight parsecs (26 light-years) to destroy half of the Earth's ozone layer.[82] Such estimates are mostly concerned with atmospheric modeling and considered only the known radiation flux from SN 1987A, a Type II supernova in the Large Magellanic Cloud. Estimates of the rate of supernova occurrence within 10 parsecs of the Earth vary from once every 100 million years[83] to once every one to ten billion years.[84]

Type Ia supernovae are thought to be potentially the most dangerous if they occur close enough to the Earth. Because Type Ia supernovae arise from dim, common white dwarf stars, it is likely that a supernova that could affect the Earth will occur unpredictably and take place in a star system that is not well studied. One theory suggests that a Type Ia supernova would have to be closer than a thousand parsecs (3300 light-years) to affect the Earth.[85] The closest known candidate is IK Pegasi (see below).[86]

In 1996, astronomers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign theorized that traces of past supernovae might be detectable on Earth in the form of metal isotope signatures in rock strata. Subsequently, iron-60 enrichment has been reported in deep-sea rock of the Pacific Ocean by researchers from the Technical University of Munich.[87][88][89]

Several large stars within the Milky Way have been suggested as possible supernovae within the next few thousand to hundred million years. These include Rho Cassiopeiae,[91] Eta Carinae,[92][93] RS Ophiuchi,[94][95] the Kitt Peak Downes star KPD1930+2752,[96] HD 179821,[97][98] IRC+10420,[99] VY Canis Majoris,[100] Betelgeuse, Antares, and Spica.[81]

Many Wolf-Rayet stars, such as Gamma Velorum,[101] WR 104,[102] and those in the Quintuplet Cluster,[103] are also considered possible precursor stars to a supernova explosion in the 'near' future.

The nearest supernova candidate is IK Pegasi (HR 8210), located at a distance of only 150 light-years. This closely-orbiting binary star system consists of a main sequence star and a white dwarf, separated by only 31 million km. The dwarf has an estimated mass equal to 1.15 times that of the Sun.[104] It is thought that several million years will pass before the white dwarf can accrete the critical mass required to become a Type Ia supernova.



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     Prof. Drygalski