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NASA’s Fermi Space Telescope Reveals New Source Of Gamma Rays


Image Credit: NASA/DOE/Fermi LAT Collaboration

Image Credit: NASA/DOE/Fermi LAT Collaboration

Observations by NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope of several stellar eruptions, called novae, firmly establish these relatively common outbursts almost always produce gamma rays, the most energetic form of light.

“There’s a saying that one is a fluke, two is a coincidence, and three is a class, and we’re now at four novae and counting with Fermi,” said Teddy Cheung, an astrophysicist at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, and the lead author of a paper reporting the findings in the Aug. 1 edition of the journal Science.

A nova is a sudden, short-lived brightening of an otherwise inconspicuous star caused by a thermonuclear explosion on the surface of a white dwarf, a compact star not much larger than Earth. Each nova explosion releases up to 100,000 times the annual energy output of our sun. Prior to Fermi, no one suspected these outbursts were capable of producing high-energy gamma rays, emission with energy levels millions of times greater than visible light and usually associated with far more powerful cosmic blasts.

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Magnetar Formation Mystery Solved?


 Artist’s impression of the magnetar in the star cluster Westerlund 1. Credit: ESO/L. Calçada


Artist’s impression of the magnetar in the star cluster Westerlund 1. Credit: ESO/L. Calçada

Magnetars are the bizarre super-dense remnants of supernova explosions. They are the strongest magnets known in the Universe — millions of times more powerful than the strongest magnets on Earth.

When a massive star collapses under its own gravity during a supernova explosion it forms either a neutron star or black hole. Magnetars are an unusual and very exotic form of neutron star. Like all of these strange objects they are tiny and extraordinarily dense — a teaspoon of neutron star material would have a mass of about a billion tonnes — but they also have extremely powerful magnetic fields. Magnetar surfaces release vast quantities of gamma rays when they undergo a sudden adjustment known as a starquake as a result of the huge stresses in their crusts.

The Westerlund 1 star cluster, located 16 000 light-years away in the southern constellation of Ara (the Altar), hosts one of the two dozen magnetars known in the Milky Way.

“In our earlier work (eso1034) we showed that the magnetar in the cluster Westerlund 1 (eso0510) must have been born in the explosive death of a star about 40 times as massive as the Sun. But this presents its own problem, since stars this massive are expected to collapse to form black holes after their deaths, not neutron stars. We did not understand how it could have become a magnetar,” says Simon Clark, lead author of the paper reporting these results.

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Hubble Astronomers Use Supernovae To Gauge Power Of Cosmic Lenses


Distant exploding stars observed by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope are providing astronomers with a powerful tool to determine the strength of naturally-occurring “cosmic lenses” that are used to magnify objects in the remote universe.

Two teams of astronomers, working independently, observed three such exploding stars, called supernovae. Their light was amplified by the immense gravity of massive galaxy clusters in the foreground — a phenomenon called gravitational lensing. Astronomers use the gravitational lensing effect to search for distant objects that might otherwise be too faint to see, even with today’s largest telescopes.

“We have found supernovae that can be used like an eye chart for each lensing cluster,” explained Saurabh Jha of Rutgers University in Piscataway, N.J., a member of the Cluster Lensing and Supernova survey with Hubble (CLASH) team. “Because we can estimate the intrinsic brightness of the supernovae, we can measure the magnification of the lens.”

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Supernova Cleans Up Its Surroundings


Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/Morehead State Univ / T.Pannuti et al.; Optical: DSS; Infrared: NASA/JPL-Caltech; Radio: NRAO/VLA / Argentinian Institute of Radioastronomy / G.Dubner

Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/Morehead State Univ / T.Pannuti et al.; Optical: DSS; Infrared: NASA/JPL-Caltech; Radio: NRAO/VLA / Argentinian Institute of Radioastronomy / G.Dubner

Supernovas are the spectacular ends to the lives of many massive stars. These explosions, which occur on average twice a century in the Milky Way, can produce enormous amounts of energy and be as bright as an entire galaxy. These events are also important because the remains of the shattered star are hurled into space. As this debris field – called a supernova remnant – expands, it carries the material it encounters along with it.

Astronomers have identified a supernova remnant that has several unusual properties. First, they found that this supernova remnant – known as G352.7-0.1 (or, G352 for short) – has swept up a remarkable amount of material, equivalent to about 45 times the mass of the Sun.

Another atypical trait of G352 is that it has a very different shape in radio data compared to that in X-rays. Most of the radio emission is shaped like an ellipse, contrasting with the X-ray emission that fills in the center of the radio ellipse.

A recent study suggests that, surprisingly, the X-ray emission in G352 is dominated by the hotter (about 30 million degrees Celsius) debris from the explosion, rather than cooler (about 2 million degrees) emission from surrounding material that has been swept up by the expanding shock wave. This is curious because astronomers estimate that G352 exploded about 2,200 years ago, and supernova remnants of this age usually produce X-rays that are dominated by swept-up material. Scientists are still trying to come up with an explanation for this behavior.

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NOAO/Gemini: Sakurai’s Object: Stellar Evolution In Real Time


Stellar lifetimes are measured in billions of years, so changes in their appearance rarely take place on a human timescale. Thus an opportunity to observe a star passing from one stage of life to another on a timescale of months to years is very exciting, as there are only a very few examples known. One such star is Sakurai’s Object (V4334 Sgr). First reported by a Japanese amateur astronomer in 1996 as a “nova-like object,” Sakurai’s Object had been only a few years before the faint central star of a planetary nebula. In the 1990’s Sakurai’s Object brightened by a factor of 10000. This brightening has been attributed to a final helium shell flash. In this process the burned out core of the star at the center of the planetary nebula re-ignites.

The final helium shell flash is violent, ejecting a cloud of dust and gas that forms a thick cocoon around the star blocking all visible light. By 2000 the dust cloud was so thick that Sakurai’s Object was not visible even with the Hubble Space Telescope (HST). Scientists at the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO) have been observing the sky in the area of Sakurai’s Object waiting for infrared radiation to break through the dust cloud. Infrared radiation penetrates dust much more efficiently than optical light. A detection of the infrared light would mean that the dust cloud is breaking apart, ultimately permitting light from the star to escape.

Using the Altair adaptive optics (AO) system with the Gemini North telescope on Mauna Kea in Hawai’i to compensate for distortions to starlight caused by the Earth’s atmosphere, two NOAO astronomers were able to observe the shell of escaping material around the star. According to Dr. Richard Joyce, who was in charge of the imaging program, “Using AO at Gemini gave us an unprecedented view into the heart of this object and showed us a number of faint stars where Sakurai’s Object should be.”

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DEM L241: Hardy Star Survives Supernova Blast


Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO/F.Seward et al; Optical: NOAO/CTIO/MCELS, DSS

Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO/F.Seward et al; Optical: NOAO/CTIO/MCELS, DSS

When a massive star runs out fuel, it collapses and explodes as a supernova. Although these explosions are extremely powerful, it is possible for a companion star to endure the blast. A team of astronomers using NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and other telescopes has found evidence for one of these survivors.

This hardy star is in a stellar explosion’s debris field – also called its supernova remnant – located in an HII region called DEM L241. An HII (pronounced “H-two”) region is created when the radiation from hot, young stars strips away the electrons from neutral hydrogen atoms (HI) to form clouds of ionized hydrogen (HII). This HII region is located in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a small companion galaxy to the Milky Way.

A new composite image of DEM L241 contains Chandra data (purple) that outlines the supernova remnant. The remnant remains hot and therefore X-ray bright for thousands of years after the original explosion occurred. Also included in this image are optical data from the Magellanic Cloud Emission Line Survey (MCELS) taken from ground-based telescopes in Chile (yellow and cyan), which trace the HII emission produced by DEM L241. Additional optical data from the Digitized Sky Survey (white) are also included, showing stars in the field.

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Closest, Brightest Supernova In Decades Is Also A Little Weird

February 28, 2014 Leave a comment

Image by W. Zheng and A. Filippenko, UC Berkeley

Image by W. Zheng and A. Filippenko, UC Berkeley

A bright supernova discovered only six weeks ago in a nearby galaxy is provoking new questions about the exploding stars that scientists use as their main yardstick for measuring the universe.

Called SN 2014J, the glowing supernova was discovered by a professor and his students in the United Kingdom on Jan. 21, about a week after the stellar explosion first became visible as a pinprick of light in its galaxy, M82, 11.4 million light years away in the Big Dipper. Still visible today through small telescopes, it is the brightest supernova seen from Earth since SN1987A, 27 years ago, and may be the closest Type Ia supernova – the kind used to measure cosmic distances – in more than 77 years.

When University of California, Berkeley, astronomer Alex Filippenko’s research team looked for the supernova in data collected by the Katzman Automatic Imaging Telescope (KAIT) at Lick Observatory near San Jose, Calif., they discovered that the robotic telescope had actually taken a photo of it 37 hours after it appeared, unnoticed, on Jan. 14.

Combining this observation with another chance observation by a Japanese amateur astronomer, Filippenko’s team was able to calculate that SN 2014J had unusual characteristics — it brightened faster than expected for a Type Ia supernova and, even more intriguing, it exhibited the same unexpected, rapid brightening as another supernova that KAIT discovered and imaged last year – SN 2013dy.

“Now, two of the three most recent and best-observed Type Ia supernovae are weird, giving us new clues to how stars explode,” said Filippenko.

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