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Superbright Supernova Is First Of Its Kind

Superbright Supernova Is First Of Its Kind

An extraordinarily bright, extraordinarily long-lasting supernova named SN 2007bi, snagged in a search by a robotic telescope, turns out to be the first example of the kind of stars that first populated the Universe.

The superbright supernova occurred in a nearby dwarf galaxy, a kind of galaxy that's common but has been little studied until now, and the unusual supernova could be the first of many such events soon to be discovered.

SN 2007bi was found early in 2007 by the international Nearby Supernova Factory (SNfactory) based at the U.S. Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

The supernova's spectrum was unusual, and astronomers at the University of California at Berkeley subsequently obtained a more detailed spectrum. Over the next year and a half the Berkeley scientists participated in a collaboration led by Avishay Gal-Yam of Israel's Weizmann Institute of Science to collect and analyze much more data as the supernova slowly faded away.

The analysis indicated that the supernova's precursor star could only have been a giant weighing at least 200 times the mass of our Sun and initially containing few elements besides hydrogen and helium - a star like the very first stars in the early Universe.

"Because the core alone was some 100 solar masses, the long-hypothesized phenomenon called pair instability must have occurred," says astrophysicist Peter Nugent. A member of the SNfactory, Nugent is the co-leader of the Computational Cosmology Center (C3), a collaboration between Berkeley Lab's Physics Division and Computational Research Division (CRD), where Nugent is a staff scientist. "In the extreme heat of the star's interior, energetic gamma rays created pairs of electrons and positrons, which bled off the pressure that sustained the core against collapse."

"SN 2007bi was the explosion of an exceedingly massive star," says Alex Filippenko, a professor in the Astronomy Department at UC Berkeley whose team helped obtain, analyze, and interpret the data. "But instead of turning into a black hole like many other heavyweight stars, its core went through a nuclear runaway that blew it to shreds. This type of behavior was predicted several decades ago by theorists, but never convincingly observed until now."

SN 2007bi is the first confirmed observation of a pair-instability supernova. The researchers describe their results in the 3 December 2009 issue of Nature.

SN 2007bi

"In this schematic illustration of the material ejected from SN 2007bi, the radioactive nickel core (white) decays to cobalt, emitting gamma rays and positrons that excite surrounding layers (textured yellow) rich in heavy elements like iron. The outer layers (dark shadow) are lighter elements such as oxygen and carbon, where any helium must reside, which remain unilluminated and do not contribute to the visible spectrum. (Credit: Image courtesy of DOE/Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory)"

Source: Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

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