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Contact: Mansi Kasliwal
Carnegie Institution

Forecasting a supernova explosion

Pasadena, CA—Type II supernovae are formed when massive stars collapse, initiating giant explosions. It is thought that stars emit a burst of mass as a precursor to the supernova explosion. If this process were better understood, it could be used to predict and study supernova events in their earliest stages. New observations from a team of astronomers including Carnegie's Mansi Kasliwal show a remarkable mass-loss event about a month before the explosion of a type IIn supernova. Their work is published on February 7 in Nature.

Several models for the supernova-creation process predict pre-explosion outbursts, but it has been difficult for scientists to directly observe this process. Observations of emission lines radiating out form type IIn supernovae are thought to represent interactions between the mass ejected during and prior to the star's explosion

The Palomar Transient Factory team, led by Eran Ofek of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, observed an energetic outburst from a supernova called SN2010mc that radiated at least 6x1040th joules of energy and released about 2x1028th kilograms (one hundredth of a solar mass). This mass-loss was observed 40 days before the supernova exploded.

"What is surprising is the short time between the precursor eruption and the eventual supernova explosion--one month is an extremely tiny fraction of the ten million-year lifespan of a star," Kasliwal said.

Probability modeling showed that there was only a 0.1 percent chance that the outburst was due to random chance, indicating that the outburst and explosion are likely causally related. At the very least, such outbursts are two orders of magnitude more likely to occur in the immediate run-up to the star's explosion than at other times in a star's life.

By comparing their observations to three proposed models for the mechanism by which this mass is ejected the team they found that one model provided the best match. The high velocities lend credence to the idea that the mass is driven out to the envelope that form's the star's atmosphere by the propagation and dissipation of excited gravity waves, although more work is necessary to confirm this model.

"Our discovery of SN2010mc shows that we can mark the imminent death of a massive star. By predicting the explosion, we can catch it in the act," Kasliwal said.


The VLA is operated by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, a facility of the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) operated under cooperative agreement by Associated Universities, Inc. This paper is based on observations obtained with the Samuel Oschin Telescope as part of the Palomar Transient Factory project. The authors acknowledge support from the Arye Dissentshik career development chair, the Helen Kimmel Center for Planetary Science, the Israeli Ministry of Science, the Royal Society, the NSF, the Israeli Science Foundation, the German-Israeli Foundation, ERC, the U.S. Department of Energy, Gary &Cynthia Bengier, the Richard & Rhoda Goldman Fund, the Christopher R. Redlich Fund,and the TABASGO Foundation.

The Carnegie Institution for Science is a private, nonprofit organization headquartered in Washington, D.C., with six research departments throughout the U.S. Since its founding in 1902, the Carnegie Institution has been a pioneering force in basic scientific research. Carnegie scientists are leaders in plant biology, developmental biology, astronomy, materials science, global ecology, and Earth and planetary science.

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