The brilliant flash of an exploding star’s shockwave—what astronomers call the “shock breakout” — is illustrated in this video animation.
The cartoon video begins with a view of a red supergiant star that is 500 hundred times bigger and 20,000 brighter than our sun. When the star’s internal furnace can no longer sustain nuclear fusion its core collapses under the force of gravity. A shockwave from the implosion rushes outward through the star’s layers.
The shockwave initially breaks through the star’s visible surface as a series of finger-like plasma jets. Only 20 minute later the full fury of the shockwave reaches the surface and the doomed star blasts apart as a supernova explosion.
This animation is based on photometric observations made by NASA’s Kepler space telescope. By closely monitoring the star KSN 2011d, located 1.2 billion light-years away, Kepler caught the onset of the early flash and subsequent explosion.
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In this artist’s conception, a tiny rocky object vaporizes as it orbits a white dwarf star. Astronomers have detected the first planetary object transiting a white dwarf using data from the K2 mission. Slowly the object will disintegrate, leaving a dusting of metals on the surface of the star. Credits: CfA/Mark A. Garlick
Scientists using NASA’s repurposed Kepler space telescope, known as the K2 mission, have uncovered strong evidence of a tiny, rocky object being torn apart as it spirals around a white dwarf star. This discovery validates a long-held theory that white dwarfs are capable of cannibalizing possible remnant planets that have survived within its solar system.
“We are for the first time witnessing a miniature “planet” ripped apart by intense gravity, being vaporized by starlight and raining rocky material onto its star,” said Andrew Vanderburg, graduate student from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and lead author of the paper published in Nature.
As stars like our sun age, they puff up into red giants and then gradually lose about half their mass, shrinking down to 1/100th of their original size to roughly the size of Earth. This dead, dense star remnant is called a white dwarf.
The devastated planetesimal, or cosmic object formed from dust, rock, and other materials, is estimated to be the size of a large asteroid, and is the first planetary object to be confirmed transiting a white dwarf. It orbits its white dwarf, WD 1145+017, once every 4.5 hours. This orbital period places it extremely close to the white dwarf and its searing heat and shearing gravitational force.
During its first observing campaign from May 30, 2014 to Aug. 21, 2014, K2 trained its gaze on a patch of sky in the constellation Virgo, measuring the minuscule change in brightness of the distant white dwarf. When an object transits or passes in front of a star from the vantage point of the space telescope, a dip in starlight is recorded. The periodic dimming of starlight indicates the presence of an object in orbit about the star.
A research team led by Vanderburg found an unusual, but vaguely familiar pattern in the data. While there was a prominent dip in brightness occurring every 4.5 hours, blocking up to 40 percent of the white dwarf’s light, the transit signal of the tiny planet did not exhibit the typical symmetric U-shaped pattern. It showed an asymmetric elongated slope pattern that would indicate the presence of a comet-like tail. Together these features indicated a ring of dusty debris circling the white dwarf, and what could be the signature of a small planet being vaporized.
“The eureka moment of discovery came on the last night of observation with a sudden realization of what was going around the white dwarf. The shape and changing depth of the transit were undeniable signatures,” said Vanderburg.
In addition to the strangely shaped transits, Vanderburg and his team found signs of heavier elements polluting the atmosphere of WD 1145+017, as predicted by theory.
Due to intense gravity, white dwarfs are expected to have chemically pure surfaces, covered only with light elements of helium and hydrogen. For years, researchers have found evidence that some white dwarf atmospheres are polluted with traces of heavier elements such as calcium, silicon, magnesium and iron. Scientists have long suspected that the source of this pollution was an asteroid or a small planet being torn apart by the white dwarf’s intense gravity.
Analysis of the star’s atmospheric composition was conducted using observations made by the University of Arizona’s MMT Observatory.
“For the last decade we’ve suspected that white dwarf stars were feeding on the remains of rocky objects, and this result may be the smoking gun we’re looking for,” said Fergal Mullally, staff scientist of K2 at SETI and NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California. “However, there’s still a lot more work to be done figuring out the history of this system.”
“This discovery highlights the power and serendipitous nature of K2. The science community has full access to K2 observations and is using these data to make a wide range of unique discoveries across the full range of astrophysics phenomena,” said Steve Howell, K2 project scientist at Ames.
Ames manages the Kepler and K2 missions for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, managed Kepler mission development. Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corporation operates the flight system with support from the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado in Boulder.
A pair of images of a young star, made 18 years apart, has revealed a dramatic difference that is providing astronomers with a unique, “real-time” look at how massive stars develop in the earliest stages of their formation.
The astronomers used the National Science Foundation’s Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array (VLA) to study a massive young star called W75N(B)-VLA 2, some 4200 light-years from Earth. They compared an image made in 2014 with an earlier VLA image from 1996.
“The comparison is remarkable,” said Carlos Carrasco-Gonzalez of the Center of Radioastronomy and Astrophysics of the National Autonomous University of Mexico, leader of the research team. The 1996 image shows a compact region of a hot, ionized wind ejected from the young star. The 2014 image shows that ejected wind deformed into an distinctly elongated outflow.
“We’re seeing this dramatic change in real time, so this object is providing us an exciting opportunity to watch over the next few years as a very young star goes through the early stages of its formation,” Carrasco-Gonzalez said.
The scientists believe the young star is forming in a dense, gaseous environment, and is surrounded by a doughnut-shaped, dusty torus. The star has episodes in which it ejects a hot, ionized wind for several years. At first, that wind can expand in all directions, and so forms a spherical shell around the star. Later, the wind hits the dusty torus, which slows it. Wind expanding outward along the poles of the torus, where there is less resistance, moves more quickly, resulting in an elongated shape for the outflow.
“In the span of only 18 years, we’ve seen exactly what we predicted,” Carrasco-Gonzalez said.
There are theoretical models developed to explain why nearly-spherical expansion of such outflows had been seen with young stars much more massive than the Sun, when narrower, beam-like outflows were expected based on observations of less-massive, Sun-like stars at similar stages of development. W75N(B)-VLA 2 is estimated to be about 8 times more massive than the Sun. The more-uniform outflows are seen in massive young stars in the first few thousand years of their lives, the stage at which W75N(B)-VLA 2 is thought to be.
“Our understanding of how massive young stars develop is much less complete than our understanding of how Sun-like stars develop,” Carrasco-Gonzalez said. “It’s going to be really great to be able to watch one as it changes. We expect to learn a lot from this object,” he added.
A team led by astronomers at The Australian National University has discovered the oldest known star in the Universe, which formed shortly after the Big Bang 13.7 billion years ago.
The discovery has allowed astronomers for the first time to study the chemistry of the first stars, giving scientists a clearer idea of what the Universe was like in its infancy.
“This is the first time that we’ve been able to unambiguously say that we’ve found the chemical fingerprint of a first star,” said lead researcher, Dr Stefan Keller of the ANU Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics.
“This is one of the first steps in understanding what those first stars were like. What this star has enabled us to do is record the fingerprint of those first stars.”
The star was discovered using the ANU SkyMapper telescope at the Siding Spring Observatory, which is searching for ancient stars as it conducts a five-year project to produce the first digital map the southern sky.
The ancient star is around 6,000 light years from Earth, which Dr Keller says is relatively close in astronomical terms. It is one of the 60 million stars photographed by SkyMapper in its first year.
“The stars we are finding number one in a million,” says team member Professor Mike Bessell, who worked with Keller on the research.
“Finding such needles in a haystack is possible thanks to the ANU SkyMapper telescope that is unique in its ability to find stars with low iron from their colour.”
Dr Keller and Professor Bessell confirmed the discovery using the Magellan telescope in Chile.
The composition of the newly discovered star shows it formed in the wake of a primordial star, which had a mass 60 times that of our Sun.
“To make a star like our Sun, you take the basic ingredients of hydrogen and helium from the Big Bang and add an enormous amount of iron – the equivalent of about 1,000 times the Earth’s mass,” Dr Keller says.
“To make this ancient star, you need no more than an Australia-sized asteroid of iron and lots of carbon. It’s a very different recipe that tells us a lot about the nature of the first stars and how they died.”
Dr Keller says it was previously thought that primordial stars died in extremely violent explosions which polluted huge volumes of space with iron. But the ancient star shows signs of pollution with lighter elements such as carbon and magnesium, and no sign of pollution with iron.
“This indicates the primordial star’s supernova explosion was of surprisingly low energy. Although sufficient to disintegrate the primordial star, almost all of the heavy elements such as iron, were consumed by a black hole that formed at the heart of the explosion,” he says.
The result may resolve a long-standing discrepancy between observations and predictions of the Big Bang.
The discovery was published in the latest edition of the journalNature.