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Astronomers discover exotic supernova

The Milky Way rises over the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in northern Chile. The Dark Energy Survey operates from the largest telescope at the observatory, the 4-metre Victor M. Blanco Telescope (left). Credit: Andreas Papadopoulos.

A rare superluminous supernova that erupted in a galaxy 7.8 billion light years away and easily outshines most galaxies in the Universe, has been revealed in images taken by the Dark Energy Survey (DES).

The stellar explosion was discovered by Andreas Papadopoulos, a postgraduate student from the University of Portsmouth’s Institute of Cosmology and Gravitation, who presented the findings at the National Astronomy Meeting 2014 in Portsmouth today.

Supernovae are very bright, shining anywhere from one hundred million to a few billion times brighter than the Sun for weeks on end. Thousands of these brilliant stellar deaths have been discovered over the last two decades, and the word ‘supernova’ itself was coined 80 years ago. But superluminous supernovae are a recent discovery, only being recognised as a distinct class of objects in the past five years. These cosmic explosions are 10-50 times brighter at their peak than the brightest normal type of supernovae and, unlike other supernovae, their explosive origins remain a mystery.

Mr Papadopoulos said: “Fewer than forty such supernovae have ever been found and I never expected to find one in the first DES images! As they are rare, each new discovery brings the potential for greater understanding – or more surprises.”

The explosion, called DES13S2cmm, is most unusual. The rate that it is fading away over time is much slower than for most other superluminous supernovae that have been observed to date. This change in brightness over time, or ‘light curve’, gives information on the mechanisms that caused the explosion and the composition of the material ejected.

Dr Mark Sullivan of Southampton University led the programme to obtain spectroscopy of DES13S2cmm using the Very Large Telescope at Cerro Paranal, Chile. He said: “Its unusual, slow decline was not apparent at first, but as more data came in and the supernova stopped getting fainter, we would look at the light curve and ask ourselves, ‘what is this?’“

Understanding the origins of DES13S2cmm is proving difficult.  Radioactive decay is known to power normal supernovae, but not from such extreme amounts of material.

Dr Chris D’Andrea of the University of Portsmouth, co-author on the research, said: “We have tried to explain the supernova as a result of the decay of the radioactive isotope Nickel-56, but to match the peak brightness the explosion would need to produce more than three times the mass of our Sun of the element. And even then the behaviour of the light curve doesn’t match up.”

The team are now investigating alternative explanations, including that DES13S2cmm is a normal supernova that has created at its core a magnetar – an exotic neutron star spinning hundreds of times per second, producing a magnetic field a trillion times stronger than that on Earth. Energy from the magnetar is then injected into the supernova, making the explosion exceptionally bright. Dr D’Andrea noted: “Neither model is a particularly compelling match to the data.”

With DES starting its second season in August, the hunt is on for more superluminous supernovae.

Professor Bob Nichol, Director of the Institute of Cosmology and Gravitation at Portsmouth, said: “With so few known, it’s hard to really understand their properties in detail. DES should find enough of these objects to allow us to understand superluminous supernovae as a population. But if some of these discoveries prove as difficult to interpret as DES13S2cmm, we’re prepared for the unusual!”

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