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Brightest supernova discovery hints at stellar collision

The brightest supernova ever seen appears as a dark


spot (arrow) in this negative infrared image taken by
the Palomar 5-metre telescope. The other dark spot at
centre is the host galaxy's core (Image: E Ofek et
al/Caltech/Palomar Observatory)

A supernova intrinsically two to three times brighter


than any previously recorded has been observed, and
its characteristics suggest it did not form like others of
its class.

It appears to have been forged in a collision between


two stars, adding fuel to a long-running debate about
what causes the type Ia explosions that are a crucial
tool in cosmology.

The prevailing view of type Ia supernovae is that they result from a dense stellar corpse
called a white dwarf that slowly collects matter from an ordinary companion star.
Eventually the white dwarf reaches a mass threshold called the Chandrasekhar limit,
triggering an explosion that completely destroys it.

This mass cut-off is thought to make all such supernovae explode with about the same
intrinsic brightness, allowing astronomers to calculate their distance based on how
bright they appear through telescopes. In fact, it was observations of type Ia supernovae
that led to the surprising discovery in 1998 that some mysterious entity, dubbed dark
energy, was causing the universe`s expansion to speed up.

But some astronomers have argued that type Ia`s are actually due to two white dwarfs
merging. The combined mass of the two objects is above the Chandrasekhar limit,
leading to the explosion.
Maverick explosions

Evidence for this hypothesis came in 2002 from a supernova called 2002ic. It had some
characteristics of type Ia`s, but unlike others of its type, it also showed clear signs of
hydrogen in its light spectrum. Some researchers said that could be explained by a white
dwarf colliding with the core of a red giant star - a dying, Sun-like star that bloats up
and starts expelling its outer layers before becoming a white dwarf itself.

But other astronomers countered that 2002ic was a disguised type II supernova. These
explosions occur when a massive ordinary star collapses to form a neutron star or a
black hole.

Since then, three other supernovae with similar characteristics to 2002ic have been
found. Now, a fourth has been detected, and it offers the best evidence yet for the
merger scenario - at least for some type Ia`s, according to a new study led by Eran Ofek
of Caltech in Pasadena, US.
Spiral in

The supernova was discovered on 18 September 2006, and was named 2006gy. After
correcting for light absorbed by dust between Earth and the supernova, it appears to
have been about three times brighter than any previously observed stellar explosion.

Unlike the other unusual type Ia`s, such as 2002ic, the September supernova has been
traced to a galaxy dominated by old stars. This suggests it was not a type II event, which
requires a massive star that has a very short lifetime, the researchers argue.

Study co-author Avishay Gal-Yam, also of Caltech, says most type Ia supernovae may
originate in such mergers. To explain why typical type Ia`s do not show hydrogen in
their spectra, he argues the white dwarfs manage to eject the red giants` hydrogen as
they spiral into them.
Small fraction

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