Type II supernovae are formed when massive stars collapse, initiating giant explosions. It is thought
that stars emit a burst of mass as a precursor to the supernova explosion.
If this process were better understood, it could be used to predict and study supernova events in their earliest stages.
New observations from a team of astronomers including Carnegie's Mansi Kasliwal show a remarkable mass-loss event about a month before the explosion
of a type IIn supernova.
This artist's impression shows what the supernova explosion that resulted in the formation of the supernova remnant G1.9+0.3 might have looked like. The expanding debris from the supernova explosion is shown in white, including some interaction with the surrounding gas (green). The crowded environment near the center
is shown by diffuse gas (red) and dust (brown) as well as large numbers of stars with different masses
and colors. Credit: NASA/CXC/M. Weiss
Several models for the supernova-creation process predict pre-explosion outbursts, but it has been difficult for
scientists to directly observe this process. Observations of emission lines radiating out form type IIn supernovae
are thought to represent interactions between the mass ejected during and prior to the star's explosion
The Palomar Transient Factory team, led by Eran Ofek of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, observed an
energetic outburst from a supernova called SN2010mc that radiated at least 6x1040th joules of energy and released
about 2x1028th kilograms (one hundredth of a solar mass). This mass-loss was observed 40 days before the supernova exploded.
“What is surprising is the short time between the precursor eruption and the eventual supernova explosion--one month
is an extremely tiny fraction of the ten million-year lifespan of a star,” Kasliwal said.
Probability modeling showed that there was only a 0.1 percent chance that the outburst was due to random chance,
indicating that the outburst and explosion are likely causally related. At the very least, such outbursts are two
orders of magnitude more likely to occur in the immediate run-up to the star's explosion than at other times in a
This extraordinarily deep Chandra image shows Cassiopeia A (Cas A, for short), the youngest supernova remnant in the Milky Way. New analysis shows that this supernova remnant acts like a relativistic pinball machine by accelerating electrons to enormous energies. The blue, wispy arcs in the image show where the acceleration is taking place in an expanding shock wave generated
by the explosion. The red and green regions show material from the destroyed star that has been heated to
millions of degrees by the explosion. Credit: NASA/CXC/MIT/UMass Amherst/M.D.Stage et al.
By comparing their observations to three proposed models for the mechanism by which this mass is ejected the team
they found that one model provided the best match. The high velocities lend credence to the idea that the mass is
driven out to the envelope that form’s the star’s atmosphere by the propagation and dissipation of excited gravity
waves, although more work is necessary to confirm this model.
“Our discovery of SN2010mc shows that we can mark the imminent death of a massive star. By predicting the explosion,
we can catch it in the act,” Kasliwal said.