A Cosmic Explosion Brighter than the Core of the Milky Way

SN 2006gy is the brightest stellar explosion ever recorded and may be a long-sought new type of supernova, according to observations by NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory (bottom right panel) and ground-based optical telescopes (bottom left). This discovery indicates that violent explosions of extremely massive stars, depicted in the artist's illustration (top panel), were relatively common in the early universe. These data also suggest that a similar explosion may be ready to go off in our own Galaxy.
SN 2006gy is the brightest stellar explosion ever recorded and may be a long-sought new type of supernova, according to observations by NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory (bottom right panel) and ground-based optical telescopes (bottom left). This discovery indicates that violent explosions of extremely massive stars, depicted in the artist’s illustration (top panel), were relatively common in the early universe. These data also suggest that a similar explosion may be ready to go off in our own Galaxy. Credits: NASA/ESA/Chandra/Lick/

Hypernova SN 2006gy was over a hundred times brighter than a typical supernova  

Space news (astrophysics: hypernovae; one of the brightest ever, SN 2006gy) – 240 million light-years toward the constellation Perseus in galaxy NGC 1260 –  

sn2006gy_anim_thm100
Watch this animation of SN 2006gy. Credits: NASA/ESA/Chandra.

It all started in September of 2006 when a fourth-year University of Texas graduate student astronomer working for the Palomar Transient Factory’s (PTF) luminous supernova program Robert Quimby discovered the brightest celestial event up to this date. An exploding star over 100 times brighter than a normal supernova and shining brighter than the core of its host galaxy NGC 1260. 

SN 2006gy is the brightest stellar explosion ever recorded and may be a long-sought new type of supernova, according to observations by NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory (bottom right panel) and ground-based optical telescopes (bottom left). This discovery indicates that violent explosions of extremely massive stars, depicted in the artist's illustration (top panel), were relatively common in the early universe. These data also suggest that a similar explosion may be ready to go off in our own Galaxy.
SN 2006gy is the brightest stellar explosion ever recorded and may be a long-sought new type of supernova, according to observations by NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory (bottom right panel) and ground-based optical telescopes (bottom left). This discovery indicates that violent explosions of extremely massive stars, depicted in the artist’s illustration (top panel), were relatively common in the early universe. These data also suggest that a similar explosion may be ready to go off in our own Galaxy. Credits: NASA/ESA/Chandra/Lick/Keck.

“This was a truly monstrous explosion, a hundred times more energetic than a typical supernova,” said Nathan Smith of the University of California at Berkeley, who led a team of astronomers from California and the University of Texas at Austin. “That means the star that exploded might have been as massive as a star can get, about 150 times that of our sun. We’ve never seen that before.”  

nsmith
Nathan Smith of the University of California at Berkeley. Credit: University of California at Berkeley/NASA

Teams of astronomers working with the Katzman Automatic Imaging Telescope at the Lick Observatory on Mt. Hamilton in California and M.W. Keck Observatory near the summit of Mauna Kea on the island of Hawaii immediately began observing the event designated supernova SN 2006gy. Analysis of data showed it occurred over 240 million light-years away in galaxy NGC 1260 and took 70 days to reach maximum brightness. Staying brighter than any previously recorded event for over three months, SN 2006gy was still as bright as a normal supernova eight months later. 

SN 2006gy is the brightest stellar explosion ever recorded and may be a long-sought new type of supernova, according to observations by NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory (bottom right panel) and ground-based optical telescopes (bottom left). This discovery indicates that violent explosions of extremely massive stars, depicted in the artist's illustration (top panel), were relatively common in the early universe. These data also suggest that a similar explosion may be ready to go off in our own Galaxy.
SN 2006gy is the brightest stellar explosion ever recorded and may be a long-sought new type of supernova, according to observations by NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory (bottom right panel) and ground-based optical telescopes (bottom left). This discovery indicates that violent explosions of extremely massive stars, depicted in the artist’s illustration (top panel), were relatively common in the early universe. These data also suggest that a similar explosion may be ready to go off in our own Galaxy. Credits: NASA/ESA/Chandra/Lick/Keck.

“Of all exploding stars ever observed, this was the king,” said Alex Filippenko, leader of the ground-based observations at the Lick Observatory at Mt. Hamilton, Calif., and the Keck Observatory in Mauna Kea, Hawaii. “We were astonished to see how bright it got, and how long it lasted.”  

Alex-Filippenko-formal-Dec2012a-small-crop
Alex Filippenko, professor of astronomy for University of California, Berkeley. Credits: University of California, Berkeley.

Astronomers were reasonably sure at this point the progenitor of supernova SN 2006gy was one of the largest, most massive types of stars ever to exist. But they needed to rule out the most likely alternative explanation for the event. The possibility a white dwarf star with a mass slightly higher than Sol went supernova in a dense, hydrogen-rich environment.  

Another team of astronomers using the Chandra X-ray Observatory went to work at this point to rule this possibility out of their equations. If this was the case, they knew X-ray emission from the event should be at least 1,000 times more luminous than the readings they were getting.     

“This provides strong evidence that SN 2006gy was, in fact, the death of an extremely massive star,” said Dave Pooley of the University of California at Berkeley, who led the Chandra observations. 

The progenitor star for SN 2006gy is thought to have ejected a large volume of mass before the hypernova event occurred. This is similar to events observed by astronomers in the case of Eta Carinae, a nearby supermassive star they’re watching closely for signs of an impending supernova. Only 7,500 light-years toward the constellation Carina, compared to 240 million for galaxy NGC 1260, this star going supernova would be the celestial event of the century on Earth. It would be bright enough to see in the daylight sky.

livio
Mario Livio is an internationally known astrophysicist, a bestselling author, and a popular lecturer. Credits: MarioLivio.com

“We don’t know for sure if Eta Carinae will explode soon, but we had better keep a close eye on it just in case,” said Mario Livio of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, who was not involved in the research. “Eta Carinae’s explosion could be the best star-show in the history of modern civilization.” 

The massive star Eta Carinae (almost hidden in the center) underwent a giant explosion some 150 years ago. The outburst spread the material that is visible today in this very sharp Hubble image. Even though Eta Carinae is more than 8,000 light-years away, structures only 15 thousand million kilometre across (about the diameter of our solar system) can be distinguished. Dust lanes, tiny condensations, and strange radial streaks al appear with unprecedented clarity. A huge, billowing pair of gas and dust clouds are captured in this stunning Hubble Space Telescope image of the supermassive star Eta Carinae. Credit: Jon Morse (University of Colorado), and NASA/ESA
The massive star Eta Carinae (almost hidden in the center) underwent a giant explosion some 150 years ago. The outburst spread the material that is visible today in this very sharp Hubble image. Even though Eta Carinae is more than 8,000 light-years away, structures only 15 thousand million kilometre across (about the diameter of our solar system) can be distinguished. Dust lanes, tiny condensations, and strange radial streaks al appear with unprecedented clarity.
A huge, billowing pair of gas and dust clouds are captured in this stunning Hubble Space Telescope image of the supermassive star Eta Carinae.
Credit:
Jon Morse (University of Colorado), and NASA/ESA

So many questions

Astronomers think in the case of hypernova SN 2006gy things might have taken a slightly different pathway than previously recorded supernovae. Some scientists think the massive star that exploded could be much more like the supermassive stars that existed during the early moments of the cosmos. Supermassive stars that exploded in supernovae and spread the elements of creation across the cosmos, rather than collapsing to a black hole as theorized.  

“In terms of the effect on the early universe, there’s a huge difference between these two possibilities,” said Smith. “One [sprinkles] the galaxy with large quantities of newly made elements and the other locks them up forever in a black hole.” 

Why would these supermassive stars be different than other huge stars observed in the Milky Way? The human search for answers to these and other mysterious questions before us continues as we journey backward to the beginning of space and time. 

We’ll update you with any additional data astronomers come across as the journey continues. Until next time, keep dreaming of the possibilities. 

Warren Wong 

Editor and Chief 

The Human Journey to the beginning of space and time. 

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Hubble Finds the The Biggest Black Hole

This conceptualized drawing of black hole Cygnus x-1 shows the black hole drawing matter from a nearby blue star
This conceptualized drawing of black hole Cygnus x-1 shows the black hole drawing matter from a nearby blue star

The nature of the beast

Astronomy news (November 26, 2013) – Astronomers believe the size of a black hole should be related to the size of the galaxy in which it resides, so the smaller a galaxy, the less massive its black hole should be. The lenticular galaxy NGC 1277 appears to have a black hole near its center with a mass out of proportion to its size, which indicates this theory will have to be looked at again.

Astronomers measured the velocities of stars in orbit around NGC 1277
Astronomers measured the velocities of stars in orbit around NGC 1277

Watch this animation on the possible orbit of the massive black hole in NGC 1277, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pFkBKmAj0G4.

NASA astronomers conducting a study of black holes at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy recently used the Hubble Space Telescope and Hobby-Eberly Telescope in Fort Davis, Texas to measure the velocities of stars in orbit around NGC 1277. The higher the velocity of these stars, the greater the mass of the central object. NGC 1277 is located at a distance of around 250 million light-years, toward the constellation Perseus.

This Hubble image shows lenticular galaxy NGC1277
This Hubble image shows lenticular galaxy NGC1277

Astronomers measured the mass of the object at the center of NGC 1277 to be around 17 billion times the mass of the Sun, which is over four thousand times more massive than the 4 million solar mass black hole at the center of the Milky Way. Until recently, the two most massive central bodies found in any galaxy measured by astronomers reside in galaxies NGC 3842 and NGC 4889. This would make the central object in NGC 1277 the most massive found to date during the current study of black holes by NASA astronomers at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy.

Astronomers measured the central mass in NGC 1277 to be over 4 times as massive as the one in our own Milky Way
Astronomers measured the central mass in NGC 1277 to be over 4 times as massive as the one in our own Milky Way

NASA astronomers estimate the central mass in NGC 1277 has about 14 percent of the total mass of this smaller galaxy, which when compared to the expected 0.1 percent of the mass of the stellar bulge of the galaxy, could mean astronomers will have to rethink current astrophysical theories on galaxy-black hole systems.

What now?

NASA astronomers at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy are currently going over the data obtained during their study of NGC 1277, to see if they can come up with a new theory on how the central mass could be so massive as compared to other galaxy-black hole systems studied.

Current ideas include the possibility the black hole at the center of NGC 1277 could have been ejected from nearby galaxy NGC 1275 and then subsequently captured. We’ll keep you updated as more information and data comes in on theories concerning galaxy-black hole systems during the continuing human journey to the beginning of space and time.

The leader of the team surveying black holes at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy talks about the black hole in NGC 1277, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=12FJVvqn1YE.

Can NASA astronomers detect extraterrestrial moons orbiting distant suns? Read this article to find out https://spaceshipearth1.wordpress.com/2013/12/31/searching-for-extraterrestrial-moons/.

Read about the latest discovery in the search for life beyond Earth https://spaceshipearth1.wordpress.com/2013/12/25/the-search-for-life-beyond-earth-takes-a-turn-at-jupiter/.

Read about the latest images of the solar system sent back by the Cassini spacecraft https://spaceshipearth1.wordpress.com/2013/12/22/cassini-spacecraft-show-views-of-the-solar-system-in-natural-color/.

Ancient Astronomers Looking at Algol for Signs

Algol is called the Demon Star
Algol is called the Demon Star

Of gods in the heavens

“Blink, blink, Demon Star. We know not what you are”

Ancient Astronomy –

Tonight the human journey to the beginning of space and time travels 93 light years to the constellation Perseus, to check out Algol, a bright blue beacon in the sky astronomers in Egypt and China studied extensively for centuries. Called the Demon Star by some stargazers, this bright blue star was believed by ancient Greeks to represent the blinking eye of Gorgon the Medusa, held high in the hands of Perseus the Hero. This is thought to be the case due to periodic changes in the Demon Star that occur every few days. The word Algol comes from the Arabic for al-Ghul – the ghoul.

Algol is thought to be feasting on the matter of another star
Algol is thought to be feasting on the matter of another star

Ancient astronomers in Egypt and China studied Algol

Modern astronomers studying Algol believe the Demon Star has a macabre habit to match its moniker. You see Algol’s a multiple star system composed of one star in the act of consuming the outer layers of the other. According to theory, two such stars in close proximity should be interacting

Modern astronomers have been studying Algol’s periodic blinking every few days, since sometime in the 17th century. In 1783, a young astronomer called John Goodricke sent a letter to the Royal Society of London suggesting this blinking could be due to a darker body passing in front of a star. It wasn’t until 1881 that University of Harvard astronomer Edward Dickering confirmed Algol has more than one sun. In fact, around 1912 a team of astronomers in Helsinki determined Algol has a brilliant blue star and bloated red star orbiting periodically close together, with a third star orbiting the pair at a distance.

John Goodricke suggested the blinking of Algol could be due to another star passing in front of the Demon Star
John Goodricke suggested the blinking of Algol could be due to another star passing in front of the Demon Star

Modern astronomers studied the Demon Star

The periodic blinking of the Demon Star occurs when the red bloated star passes in front of the blue star, merging the pair into a single point of light, which accounts for Algol turning blood red, before turning blue again around 10 hours later.

Algol is blue before turning blood red
Algol turns blood red, before appearing blue again

Click this link to watch a YouTube documentary on Algol. The documentary is a mix of different videos on the dying star, which the site has put into one show. Pretty cool stuff.

Algol: The Last Minutes of a Dying Star

Read about NASA’s Messenger spacecraft and its mission to Mercury

Have you heard about the recent meteorite that exploded near the Ural Mountains

Read about the supernova astronomers are studying looking for a black hole they think was created during the explosion