Astronomy / Space NASA’s Hubble Finds Supernova Star System Linked to Potential “Zombie Star”

NASA’s Hubble Finds Supernova Star System Linked to Potential “Zombie Star”
August 6, 2014

Using NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, a team of astronomers has spotted a star system that could have left behind a “zombie star” after an unusually weak supernova explosion.

A supernova typically obliterates the exploding white dwarf, or dying star. On this occasion, scientists believe this faint supernova may have left behind a surviving portion of the dwarf star -- a sort of zombie star.

While examining Hubble images taken years before the stellar explosion, astronomers identified a blue companion star feeding energy to a white dwarf, a process that ignited a nuclear reaction and released this weak supernova blast. This supernova, Type Iax, is less common than its brighter cousin, Type Ia. Astronomers have identified more than 30 of these mini-supernovas that may leave behind a surviving white dwarf.

“Astronomers have been searching for decades for the star systems that produce Type Ia supernova explosions,” said scientist Saurabh Jha of Rutgers University in Piscataway, New Jersey. “Type Ia’s are important because they’re used to measure vast cosmic distances and the expansion of the universe. But we have very few constraints on how any white dwarf explodes. The similarities between Type Iax’s and normal Type Ia’s make understanding Type Iax progenitors important, especially because no Type Ia progenitor has been conclusively identified. This discovery shows us one way that you can get a white dwarf explosion.”

The team’s results will appear in the Thursday, Aug. 7 edition of the journal Nature.

The weak supernova, dubbed SN 2012Z, resides in the host galaxy NGC 1309 which is 110 million light-years away. It was discovered in the Lick Observatory Supernova Search in January 2012. Luckily, Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys also observed NGC 1309 for several years prior the supernova outburst, which allowed scientists to compare before-and-after images.

Curtis McCully, a graduate student at Rutgers and lead author of the team’s paper, sharpened the Hubble pre-explosion images and noticed a peculiar object near the location of the supernova.

“I was very surprised to see anything at the location of the supernova. We expected the progenitor system would be too faint to see, like in previous searches for normal Type Ia supernova progenitors. It is exciting when nature surprises us,” McCully said.

After studying the object’s colors and comparing with computer simulations of possible Type Iax progenitor systems, the team concluded they were seeing the light of a star that had lost its outer hydrogen envelope, revealing its helium core.

The team plans to use Hubble again in 2015 to observe the area, giving time for the supernova’s light to dim enough to reveal any possible zombie star and helium companion to confirm their hypothesis.
http://www.nasa.gov/press/2014/augu...linked-to-potential-zombie-star/#.U-Ux-fmSzih
 
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