Discovery of 'zombie' supernova like finding a dinosaur alive today

The fluctuating light curve of the 600-day supernova compared to a standard 100-day supernova.    
   Image LCO  S. Wilkinson

"This supernova breaks everything we thought we knew about how they work", says Iair Arcavi, lead author of the study. Thousands of these events have been observed over decades, but now one star has broken the rules and refused to die, somehow exploding several times over 60 years. This one is still going strong after 1000 days, although it's gradually fading.

Supernovas typically fade over 100 days. "It's a very different kind of supernova that can die repeatedly", says Woosley. The event is a mystery to astronomers as supernovas are generally expected to explode only once and standard, current theoretical models can not explain the odd behavior behind the "zombie" star, leaving many to speculate that the aliens are behind it, much like whatever else scientists can not explain.

This exploding star, named iPTF14hls, has erupted continuously for the last three years, and it may have had two other outbursts in the past, astronomers report in the November 9 Nature. How did this star explode at least once in the '50s and then again three years ago? "We'll just have to wait and see". It could well be the biggest stellar explosion ever observed, which might explain its death-defying peculiarity.

There seemed to be no rhyme or reason to it.

Indeed, the "Pulsational Pair Instability" theory may not fully explain all the data obtained for this event.

It has been theorised that the cores of massive stars become so hot that energy is converted into matter and antimatter. "Eventually, this star will go out at some point".

Arcavi explained to The Register that, "according to Einstein's famous equation, E=mc, energy can be turned into matter, but you need a lot of energy to make a little matter". One theory suggests that stars between 95 and 130 times the mass of the sun can explode several times, although these cyclic deaths have never been seen before. With most of its mass gone the star then "dies", collapsing in on itself to form a black hole or a neutron star.

"These explosions were only expected to be seen in the early universe and should be extinct today", said co-author Andy Howell. "If you found one, you would question whether it truly was a dinosaur". However, scientists have recently found a massive, distant star in space, which had exploded back in 2014 and also, apparently, way back in 1954, but it just refuses to fade away.

The study suggests that supernova iPTF14hls was the first observation of a previously-theorized event known as a "Pulsational Pair Instability Supernova".

For one thing, the enormous energy released in the course of iPTF14hls's known explosions (and there may have been more) already surpasses Woosley's predictions for how much energy the pair-instability mechanism can muster. This supernova may be something completely new. "This, after discovering almost 5,000 supernovae in the last two decades", said study co-author Peter Nugent from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in the US. The theory also has trouble accounting for the considerable hydrogen in the unusual supernova's spectrum - earlier eruptions ought to have blown the star's hydrogen envelope into space - not to mention the hydrogen's bizarrely high speed, which shows no correlation with changes in brightness.

An image taken by the Palomar Observatory Sky Survey reveals a possible explosion in the year 1954 at the location of iPTF14hls (left), not seen in a later image taken in 1993 (right).

"I was really, really not expecting what we saw", he told CBC News. "It's been in our arsenal of models for quite some time, but we've never had a real clincher before", Stan Woosley, an astrophysicist who came up with the PPI theory and wrote an accompanying article in Nature, tells The Verge.

The team might be in luck in the future as more detailed spectrograph instruments are installed in other observatories.

For Nick Konidaris, a co-author and an one of the inventors of the SED Machine, a tool that allows telescopes to image the sky much faster than conventional methods, the discovery is what he always hoped would be the result.

"More instruments like SED Machine would be really helpful in studying these objects".

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