How does a type 1 supernova come about

First type 1ax supernova in our galaxy

In our galaxy, astronomers know about 350 supernova relics - the glowing remains of an exploded star. But not a single one of them came from a rare special case, the so-called Supernova Typ1ax - until now. In the heart of the Milky Way, researchers have now tracked down the first remnant of such a particularly slow explosion of a white dwarf in our galaxy. Because the relic of this supernova, known as Sagittarius A East, is only around 25,000 light-years away from us, it opens up completely new opportunities to get to the bottom of this previously little-explored type of star explosion.

A “normal” supernova occurs when a massive star has reached the end of its life cycle. Then its nuclear fusion subsides and it comes to a collapse caused by gravity, in which the star collapses, so to speak. But there are also supernovae in which the starting star has already become a white dwarf - a very compact remnant of a star that has shed a large part of its shell. When this white dwarf orbits in a binary star system, it often happens that it sucks material from its stellar companion. If its mass then exceeds a critical limit, a type 1a supernova occurs. Because these star explosions show a brightness that can be standardized, they are often used as “standard candles” in astronomy - they can be used to measure the distance of distant galaxies and thus also the expansion of the cosmos.

X-ray view into the heart of the Milky Way

But as important as the type 1a supernovae are for astronomy, the sequence of these explosions has so far only been partially clarified. This is particularly true for a subspecies of these star explosions, the supernova type 1ax. Astrophysicists suggest that the thermonuclear reactions in these white dwarf explosions are slower, resulting in the formation of less heavy elements. In addition, remnants of the white dwarf could still be preserved in these supernovae. According to theoretical calculations, there are around three Type 1ax explosions for every ten normal type 1a supernovae. So far, however, astronomers have hardly had a chance to investigate the events of this rare type of supernova: "The origin of these star explosions is highly controversial, also because the knowledge about this type comes from extragalactic cases alone," explain Ping Zhou from the University of Amsterdam and his colleagues. Among the approximately 290 to 380 known supernova relics in the Milky Way, not a single remnant came from a Type 1ax supernova.

This has changed now. Because Zhou and his team have now found out that an object in the heart of the Milky Way that has been puzzling for a long time could be the relic of such a type 1ax supernova. It is about Sagittarius A East (Sgr A East), a luminous structure made of dust and gas, which lies in the immediate vicinity of the central black hole of our galaxy. It is therefore only around 25,000 light years away from us. To determine the process by which this relic was created, the astronomers have now examined it more closely using the Chandra X-ray telescope. Using X-ray spectroscopy, they were able to determine how the gases are composed and how fast they move.

First intragalactic representative of a type 1ax supernova

The images and spectral data revealed that the elemental composition of this supernova relic differs significantly from that of normal star explosions and also from common type 1a supernovae: “Our data show a small proportion of medium-weight elements compared to iron and large proportions of manganese and nickel - these frequencies do not match either the models of core collapse supernovae or normal type 1a supernovae, ”the researchers report. “This pattern is surprisingly different from other supernova relics.” With the help of astrophysical models, the astronomers therefore next examined which type of explosion could most likely have produced this elemental pattern.

The result: it is very likely that Sagittarius A East could be the remains of a rarity - a Type 1ax supernova. "Sgr A East is the first galactic supernova relic for which a Type 1ax origin is likely," write Zhou and his colleagues. If this is confirmed, it would be the first nearby representative of these largely mysterious stellar explosions. Sagittarius A East could thus make a decisive contribution to clearing up the secrets of the Type 1ax supernovae. "This discovery is important in order to gain a better understanding of the various ways in which white dwarfs can explode," explains Zhou.

Source: Ping Zhou (University of Amsterdam) et al., The Astrophysical Journal; arXiv: 2006.15049v2

February 10, 2021

© - Nadja Podbregar