Small Thing Make Big Boom
The most spectacular supernova ever detected has astrophysicists scratching their heads for a mechanism.
Type 1a supernovas (or supernovae to geeks) are pretty well characterized. Theory says that when material from a binary companion flows onto a white dwarf, it will explode when it reaches a critical mass with a flash that should be about the same in all cases. That allows them to be used as a “standard candle” for measuring distances in space. It’s the standard story, at least, although there are problems (4/13/15, 7/03/15).
But then there are supernovas that are off the charts. So-called “superluminous supernovae” require a different explanation. One theory for these much brighter explosions is that they come from magnetars—neutron stars with exceptionally strong magnetic fields, quadrillions of times stronger than the one surrounding Earth. One theory suggests that energy from the magnetar impacts the expanding supernova remnant from which it formed, brightening it substantially.
That theory has now come into doubt with the discovery of ASASSN-15lh, a supernova that was so bright, it didn’t even fit into the scale of 1 to 10:
“If it really is a magnetar, it’s as if nature took everything we know about magnetars and turned it up to 11,” Stanek said. (For those not familiar with the comedy [from the 1984 movie This Is the Final Tap], the statement basically translates to “11 on a scale of 1 to 10.”)
The gas ball surrounding the object can’t be seen with the naked eye, because it’s 3.8 billion light years away. But it was spotted by the All Sky Automated Survey for Supernovae (ASAS-SN, pronounced “assassin”) collaboration. Led by Ohio State, the project uses a cadre of small telescopes around the world to detect bright objects in our local universe.
Astrobiology Magazine talks about this supernova that was detected last June. It was bi-i-i-g. How big was it?
And yet astronomers suspect the progenitor, if it was a magnetar, was only 10 miles across. What do astronomers think could have caused such an incomprehensible release of energy? or as the headline says, “What is 10 miles across, but powers an explosion brighter than the Milky Way?”
“We have to ask, how is that even possible?” said Stanek, professor of astronomy at Ohio State. “It takes a lot of energy to shine that bright, and that energy has to come from somewhere.”
“The honest answer is at this point that we do not know what could be the power source for ASASSN-15lh,” said Subo Dong, lead author of the Science paper and a Youth Qianren Research Professor of astronomy at the Kavli Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics at Peking University.
He added that the discovery “may lead to new thinking and new observations of the whole class of superluminous supernova.”
The paper in Science Magazine leaves it unresolved. It’s more than twice as luminous as the previous record-holder for superluminous supernovas. “In the 4 months since first detection, ASASSN-15lh radiated (1.1 ± 0.2) × 1052 ergs, challenging the magnetar model for its engine.” That’s a lot of ergs. It’s equal to 1045 joules, if that helps.
The energy sources and progenitors of superluminous supernova were “currently poorly understood” before this one came along. Its power source is “unknown,” they say. In order to end on a bright note, they added, “The extreme luminosity of ASASSN-15lh opens up the possibility of observing such supernovae in the early universe.”
Update 1/18/16: Nature posted a graph that shows how far off the charts this supernova was. “It challenges all our previous theories of explosion mechanisms and power sources of superluminous supernovae,” one said. It may not be a supernova at all, one astronomer thinks, but maybe the fireworks from a star falling into a black hole.
If the world’s best astrophysicists cannot understand the power source of this supernova, we’re certainly not going to pretend we can. The take-home lesson is that there are still things out there that are surprising and poorly understood. It doesn’t even seem possible that a magnetar 10 miles across could give off such energy.
Perhaps further work will reveal a solution. We only wish that astrophysicists would be bold enough to really think outside the box. It’s unlikely that this observation, as “challenging” as it is, will call into doubt the cosmic distance scale or the big bang theory. One sufficiently profound anomaly should be able to cause a paradigm shift. Often it does not; it is just incorporated into the consensus web of belief with various rescue devices.
Want to see just how far off secular astronomers can be? Check out Spike Psarris’s latest DVD in his fascinating series, What You’re Not Being Told About Astronomy. It’s $15 well spent. The new Volume III is about the Big Bang. A former atheist-turned-creationist who worked in the space program, Spike knows engineering and space really well, and is a good researcher and thinker. He has gathered really, really REALLY embarrassing quotes about the Big Bang theory by the world’s leading cosmologists (we’re talking Stephen Hawking & Alan Guth level). The citations are lengthy enough to avoid criticism as being out of context; plus, sources are provided. Psarris also shows the evidential and logical holes in the theory, and the bizarre implications of today’s consensus Big Bang model that are so humorously absurd, it will forever change your view of the big bang and the secular “experts” who promote it. It will also leave you wondering why any Christian would embrace the Big Bang. The DVD’s production quality is good. Preview the first chapter here.