Gaia discovers its first supernova

 

Date: 12 September 2014

Original link: ESA webpage

While scanning the sky to measure the positions and movements of stars in our Galaxy, Gaia has discovered its first stellar explosion in another galaxy far, far away.

 

An artist’s impression of a Type Ia supernova – the explosion of a white dwarf locked in a binary system with a companion star. While other types of supernovas are the explosive demises of massive stars, several times more massive than the Sun, Type Ia supernovas are the end product of their less massive counterparts. Low-mass stars, with masses similar to the Sun’s, end their lives gently, puffing up their outer layers and leaving behind a compact white dwarf. Due to their high density, white dwarfs can exert an intense gravitational pull on a nearby companion star, accreting mass from it until the white dwarf reaches a critical mass that then sparks a violent explosion. Credit: ESA/ATG medialab/C. Carreau

This powerful event, now named Gaia14aaa, took place in a distant galaxy some 500 million light-years away, and was revealed via a sudden rise in the galaxy’s brightness between two Gaia observations separated by one month.

 

Gaia, which began its scientific work on 25 July, repeatedly scans the entire sky, so that each of the roughly one billion stars in the final catalogue will be examined an average of 70 times over the next five years.

 

“This kind of repeated survey comes in handy for studying the changeable nature of the sky,” comments Simon Hodgkin from the Institute of Astronomy in Cambridge, UK.

 

Many astronomical sources are variable: some exhibit a regular pattern, with a periodically rising and declining brightness, while others may undergo sudden and dramatic changes.

 

“As Gaia goes back to each patch of the sky over and over, we have a chance to spot thousands of ‘guest stars’ on the celestial tapestry,” notes Dr Hodgkin. “These transient sources can be signposts to some of the most powerful phenomena in the Universe, like this supernova.”

 

Dr Hodgkin is part of Gaia’s Science Alert Team, which includes astronomers from the Universities of Cambridge, UK, and Warsaw, Poland, who are combing through the scans in search of unexpected changes.

 

It did not take long until they found the first ‘anomaly’ in the form of a sudden spike in the light coming from a distant galaxy, detected on 30 August. The same galaxy appeared much dimmer when Gaia first looked at it just a month before.

Light curve of galaxy SDSS J132102.26+453223.8 obtained with Gaia. It shows the evolution in time of the galaxy’s brightness. The brightness is indicated on the vertical axis; smaller magnitude values indicate a brighter source. The light curve shows how the galaxy significantly brightened up between the two consecutive Gaia observations because of a stellar explosion, or supernova, which was named Gaia14aaa. This is the first supernova discovered with Gaia. The data points and error bars at the lower left corner are from the first observation, performed on 31 July 2014, and they are in line with previous observations of the same galaxy performed with other telescopes. The data points at the upper right corner are from the second observation, performed on 30 August 2014, and reveal a sudden rise in brightness of almost two magnitudes (roughly a factor of 6). Using data from Gaia and other telescopes, astronomers confirmed that Gaia14aaa is a Type Ia supernova, the explosion of a white dwarf caused by the accretion of matter from a companion star in a binary system. Credits: ESA/Gaia/DPAC/Z. Kostrzewa-Rutkowska (Warsaw University Astronomical Observatory) & G. Rixon (Institute of Astronomy, Cambridge)

“We immediately thought it might be a supernova, but needed more clues to back up our claim,” explains Łukasz Wyrzykowski from the Warsaw University Astronomical Observatory, Poland.

 

Other powerful cosmic events may resemble a supernova in a distant galaxy, such as outbursts caused by the mass-devouring supermassive black hole at the galaxy centre.

 

However, in Gaia14aaa, the position of the bright spot of light was slightly offset from the galaxy’s core, suggesting that it was unlikely to be related to a central black hole.

So, the astronomers looked for more information in the light of this new source. Besides recording the position and brightness of stars and galaxies, Gaia also splits their light to create a spectrum. In fact, Gaia uses two prisms spanning red and blue wavelength regions to produce a low-resolution spectrum that allows astronomers to seek signatures of the various chemical elements present in the source of that light.

 

“In the spectrum of this source, we could already see the presence of iron and other elements that are known to be found in supernovas,” says Nadejda Blagorodnova, a PhD student at the Institute of Astronomy in Cambridge.

 

Low-resolution spectrum obtained with the photometric instrument on Gaia of a stellar explosion, or supernova. Astronomers using Gaia discovered that a source had significantly brightened up between two consecutive observations, performed on 31 July 2014 and 30 August 2014, respectively. The boost in brightness was caused by a supernova, which was named Gaia14aaa. This is the first supernova discovered with Gaia. The photometric instrument splits the light of an astronomical source to create a spectrum. In fact, Gaia uses two prisms spanning red and blue wavelength regions to produce a low-resolution spectrum that allows astronomers to seek signatures of the various chemical elements present in the source of that light. Light from the blue photometer is shown in the left half of the graph, and that from the red photometer in the right half. On the horizontal axis, the position of pixels in each of the two photometers is indicated. The pixel position provides a rough indication of the wavelength, with the blue photometer receiving light with shorter wavelengths (330–680 nanometres), and the red photometer with longer wavelengths (640–1050 nanometres). On the vertical axis, the intensity of light registered at each pixel is indicated. The gap at the centre of the graph is an instrumental effect. This low-resolution spectrum contains hints about the nature of this transient source. The blue part of the spectrum appears significantly brighter than the red one, as expected from a supernova of Type Ia – the explosion of a white dwarf caused by the accretion of matter from a companion star in a binary system. The presence of absorption lines from iron, sulphur, oxygen and calcium (indicated in the graph) is also in line with the elements expected from a Type Ia supernova. The astronomers followed up this source with the Isaac Newton Telescope on La Palma, in the Canary Islands, Spain, obtaining a high-resolution spectrum. This not only confirmed that the explosion corresponds to a Type Ia supernova, but also provided an estimate of its distance, proving that it actually happened in the galaxy where it was observed. Credits: ESA/Gaia/DPAC/N. Blagorodnova, M. Fraser, H. Campbell, A. Hall (Institute of Astronomy, Cambridge)

 

In addition, the blue part of the spectrum appears significantly brighter than the red part, as expected in a supernova. And not just any supernova: the astronomers already suspected it might be a ‘Type Ia’ supernova – the explosion of a white dwarf locked in a binary system with a companion star.

 

While other types of supernovas are the explosive demises of massive stars, several times more massive than the Sun, Type Ia supernovas are the end product of their less massive counterparts.

 

Low-mass stars, with masses similar to the Sun’s, end their lives gently, puffing up their outer layers and leaving behind a compact white dwarf. Their high density means that white dwarfs can exert an intense gravitational pull on a nearby companion star, accreting mass from it until the white dwarf reaches a critical mass that then sparks a violent explosion.

 

To confirm the nature of this supernova, the astronomers complemented the Gaia data with more observations from the ground, using the Isaac Newton Telescope (INT) and the robotic Liverpool Telescope on La Palma, in the Canary Islands, Spain.

 

This image shows the supernova named Gaia14aaa as seen on 10 September 2014 with the robotic Liverpool Telescope on La Palma, in the Canary Islands, Spain. This is a Type Ia supernova – the explosion of a white dwarf locked in a binary system with a companion star – and it was discovered in the data collected with ESA’s Gaia satellite on 30 August. In the left panel, the image from the Liverpool Telescope shows both Gaia14aaa and its host galaxy, named SDSS J132102.26+453223.8, which is about 500 million light-years away. In this image, the supernova is slightly offset from the galaxy’s core. The central panel shows an image of the same galaxy, taken as part of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, several years before the explosion of Gaia14aaa could be observed from Earth. The right panel was obtained by subtracting the second image, which contains the light emitted by the galaxy, from the first one, which depicts both the galaxy and the supernova. The difference between the two images clearly shows the appearance of Gaia14aaa. The image was taken using the i' filter, which corresponds to red and near-infrared wavelengths. Credit: M. Fraser/S. Hodgkin/L. Wyrzykowski/H. Campbell/N. Blagorodnova/Z. Kostrzewa-Rutkowska/Liverpool Telescope/SDSS

A high-resolution spectrum, obtained on 3 September with the INT, confirmed not only that the explosion corresponds to a Type Ia supernova, but also provided an estimate of its distance. This proved that the supernova happened in the galaxy where it was observed.

 

“This is the first supernova in what we expect to be a long series of discoveries with Gaia,” says Timo Prusti, ESA’s Gaia Project Scientist.

 

Supernovas are rare events: only a couple of these explosions happen every century in a typical galaxy. But they are not so rare over the whole sky, if we take into account the hundreds of billions of galaxies that populate the Universe.

 

Astronomers in the Science Alert Team are currently getting acquainted with the data, testing and optimising their detection software. In a few months, they expect Gaia to discover about three new supernovas every day.

 

In addition to supernovas, Gaia will discover thousands of transient sources of other kinds – stellar explosions on smaller scale than supernovas, flares from young stars coming to life, outbursts caused by black holes that disrupt and devour a nearby star, and possibly some entirely new phenomena never seen before.

 

“The sky is ablaze with peculiar sources of light, and we are looking forward to probing plenty of those with Gaia in the coming years,” concludes Dr Prusti.

 

 

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