At first, like an opening scene scene out a scifi classic, there didn't seem anything odd or unusual about the tiny point of light blinking in the southern Californian night sky in early April 2007. Only the robotic eyes of the Nearby Supernova Factory, a project designed to spy out distant stellar explosions, spotted it from the Palomar Observatory, high in the hills between Los Angeles and San Diego.
The project's computers automatically forwarded the images, following the same routine that kicks in scores of times each year when a far-off star in its death throes explodes into a supernova, before fading into the vast cosmic backstory of the universe.This extraordinarily bright supernova named SN 2007bi, snagged in a search by a robotic telescope, turns out to be the first example of the kind of stars that first populated the Universe.
The superbright supernova occurred in a nearby dwarf galaxy, a kind of galaxy that's common but has been little studied until now, and the unusual supernova could be the first of many such events soon to be discovered. Despite the prominence of large elliptical and spiral galaxies, most galaxies in the universe appear to be dwarf galaxies. These tiny galaxies are about one hundred times smaller than the Milky Way, containing only a few billion stars.
SN 2007bi was discovered by the Supernova Factory (SNfactory) based at the U.S. Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
Over the next year and a half the Berkeley scientists participated in a collaboration led by Avishay Gal-Yam of Israel's Weizmann Institute of Science to collect and analyze much more of the unusual object's spectrum data as the supernova slowly faded away.
The analysis indicated that the supernova's precursor star could only have been a giant weighing at least 200 times the mass of our Sun and initially containing few elements besides hydrogen and helium -- a star like the very first stars in the early Universe.
"Because the core alone was some 100 solar masses, the long-hypothesized phenomenon called pair instability must have occurred," says astrophysicist Peter Nugent. A member of the SNfactory, Nugent is the co-leader of the Computational Cosmology Center. "In the extreme heat of the star's interior, energetic gamma rays created pairs of electrons and positrons, which bled off the pressure that sustained the core against collapse."
"SN 2007bi was the explosion of an exceedingly massive star," says Alex Filippenko, a professor in the Astronomy Department at UC Berkeley whose team helped obtain, analyze, and interpret the data. "But instead of turning into a black hole like many other heavyweight stars, its core went through a nuclear runaway that blew it to shreds. This type of behavior was predicted several decades ago by theorists, but never convincingly observed until now."
SN 2007bi was recorded on images taken as part of the Palomar-QUEST Survey, an automated search with the wide-field Oschin Telescope at the California Institute of Technology's Palomar Observatory, and was quickly detected and categorized as an unusual supernova by the SNfactory.
The SNfactory has so far discovered nearly a thousand supernovae of all types and amassed thousands of spectra, but has focused on those designated Type Ia, the "standard candles" used to study the expansion history of the Universe. SN 2007bi, however, turned out not to be a Type Ia. For one thing, it was at least ten times as bright.
"The thermonuclear runaway experienced by the core of SN 2007bi is reminiscent of that seen in the explosions of white dwarfs as Type Ia supernovae," says Filippenko, "but on a much larger scale and with a far greater amount of power."
Nugent contacted Gal-Yam, then a Caltech postdoctoral fellow, the lead investigator for the all-other category. "I asked, are you interested? He said, sure!" Nugent then contacted Filippenko, who was about to conduct a night of observation with the 10-meter Keck I telescope on the summit of Mauna Kea in Hawaii. Filippenko immediately set out to obtain an optical spectrum of the unusual supernova.
Caltech researchers subsequently acquired additional spectra with the Keck telescope, as did Paolo Mazzali's team from the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics in Garching, Germany, using the Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile.
Says Mazzali, "The Keck and VLT spectra clearly indicated that an extremely large amount of material was ejected by the explosion, including a record amount of radioactive nickel, which caused the expanding gases to glow very brightly."
"The central part of the huge star had fused to oxygen near the end of its life, and was very hot," Filippenko explains. "Then the most energetic photons of light turned into electron-positron pairs, robbing the core of pressure and causing it to collapse. This led to a nuclear runaway explosion that created a large amount of radioactive nickel, whose decay energized the ejected gas and kept the supernova visible for a long time."
Gal-Yam organized a team of collaborators from many institutions to continue to observe SN 2007bi and obtain data as it slowly faded over a span of 555 days. Says Gal-Yam, "As our follow-up observations started to roll in, I immediately realized this must be something new. And indeed it turned out to be a fantastic example of how we are finding new types of stellar explosions."
Because it had no hydrogen or helium lines, the usual classification scheme would have labeled the supernova a Type Ic. But it was so much brighter than an ordinary Type Ic that it reminded Nugent of only one prior event, a supernova designated SN 1999as, found by the international Supernova Cosmology Project but unfortunately three weeks after its peak brightness.
Understanding a supernova requires a good record of its rise and fall in brightness, or light curve. Although SN 2007bi was detected more than a week after its peak, Nugent delved into years of data compiled by NERSC from the SNfactory and other surveys. He found that the Catalina Sky Survey had recorded SN 2007bi before its peak brightness and could provide enough data to calculate the duration of the rising curve, an extraordinarily long 70 days -- more evidence for the pair-instability identification.
"It's significant that the first unambiguous example of a pair-instability supernova was found in a dwarf galaxy," says Nugent. "These are incredibly small, very dim galaxies that contain few elements heavier than hydrogen and helium, so they are models of the early Universe."
These tiny dwarf galaxies could be pristine remnants of the early universe, preserving its composition and conditions in a cosmic museum. Their degree of preservation could be the result of their sheer dwarfishness: because gravity within them is weaker than within a normal galaxy, a supernova exploding within it will eject the metal-rich products outwards at such speed that they mostly escape altogether.
If the original conditions of the universe were preserved in these dwarf galaxies, there would be no reason why further waves of megastars should not continually form and die within them throughout time. If it is the absence of metals that determines stellar size, these monster stars are not restricted to the furthest reaches of the universe: they could be found in any dwarf galaxy with a low enough metal content, including places well within reach of Earth's telescopes.
The discovery of a nearby population of megastars in what amounts to suspended animation would have huge implications for stellar science. We do not understand the processes of star formation and death as well as we would like to think.
"It is surprisingly difficult to get the models to agree with the observations," says Gal-Yam. He cites the example of gold, the abundance of which in the universe essentially defies explanation, although most astronomers assume it must somehow be made in supernovae. To find the answers, we might need to look no further than dwarf galaxies orbiting the Milky Way.
Dwarf galaxies are ubiquitous but so faint and dim -- "they take only a few pixels on a camera," says Nugent, "and until recently, with the development of wide-field projects like the SNfactory, astronomers had wanted to fill the chip with galaxies" -- that they've rarely been studied. SN 2007bi is expected to focus attention on what Gal-Yam and his collaborators call "fossil laboratories to study the early Universe."
"In the future, we might end up detecting the very first generation of stars, early in the history of the Universe, through explosions such as that of SN 2007bi -- long before we have the capability of directly seeing the pre-explosion stars," added Filippenko .
With the advent of the multi-institutional Palomar Transient Factory, a fully automated, wide-field survey to find transients, the SNfactory, the Near Earth Asteroid Team, and other surveys, the collaborators expect they will find many more ultrabright, ultramassive supernovae, revealing the role of these supernovae in creating the observable universe as we know it today.
Image credit: ESA, NASA & P. Anders (Gottingen University, Germany)