Astronomers at Harvard College Observatory, in partnership with scientists at the Smithsonian Institution’s Astrophysics Observatory, have discovered the most brilliant supernova ever detected. The event took place in a galaxy about 4 billion light years from Earth and, given the proportions of the explosion, researchers believe it may have resulted from the merger of a pair of stars.
The supernova in question was cataloged under the acronym SN2016aps and, according to the scientists estimated, it generated a gigantic energy release that was 10 times higher than that observed in typical stellar explosions. In addition, astronomers calculated that the proportion of visible light emitted by the event was 500 times greater than that of normal supernovae.
But in addition to being the most brilliant stellar explosion of its kind ever detected, SN2016aps offered astronomers a unique opportunity to study this class of phenomenon. The observations revealed that, while in ordinary supernovae the emitted radiation represents less than 1% of all the energy released, in SN2016aps, the radiation reached levels five times higher – the highest ever recorded so far.
Astronomers also found large amounts of hydrogen at the location where the explosion occurred and calculated that the supernova accumulated between 50 and 100 times the mass of our Sun – factors that served as a clue for the team to reconstruct what possibly happened.
As they explained, while more massive stars, when they are reaching the end of their useful lives, they lose most of the hydrogen before they become pulsating red giants, smaller stars tend to keep their content of this element for longer.
For the amount of hydrogen identified at the explosion site, astronomers believe the supernova occurred after a binary system composed of non-supermassive stars – but with enough masses to generate instabilities in the system – collapsed and resulted in the fusion of the pair.
Then, when the supernova finally happened, the star fragments crashed into the large amounts of hydrogen concentrated there, intensifying the explosion. The cool thing is that this is the first event of such magnitude detected in the Universe and, now that astronomers know that colossal supernovae like these can occur naturally, they will be able to search the cosmos in search of similar explosions to study.