Some new research just released asks a question near and dear to me: are there thousands of spinning white dwarfs in our galaxy, just waiting to explode as they gradually slow their rotation?
The answer is very probably yes. Let me be clear, as I always must be when covering topics like this: we’re not in any real danger from these things. Space is vast, and supernovae are few. If these things were that volatile we wouldn’t be here to talk about them in the first place.
But it’s still a very cool scientific question, and actually a fairly simple concept. Here’s how it works.
Imagine a binary system of two stars like the Sun, orbiting each other. One star nears the end of its life, swells up into a red giant, and blows off its outer layers. After a few millions years, all that’s left is its core: a dense, hot ball called a white dwarf. The size of the Earth but with the mass of a star, white dwarfs are pretty weird. They have incredibly strong gravity, which wants to crush them down even further, but they are supported by the electric repulsion of electrons, which is a pretty mighty force. It’s an uneasy truce.
It’s made even uneasier by the other star. It too eventually swells up, and can start to dump matter onto the dwarf (like in the picture above). If enough mass piles up, the immense gravity of the dwarf can induce nuclear fusion. Sometimes the material explodes, flaring in brightness, and we get a nova. Other times, if enough matter piles up — making the total mass of the white dwarf a bit more than 1.4 times that of the Sun — the ignition of fusion can cause a runaway reaction in the star, disrupting it entirely. The white dwarf tears itself apart, and you get one of the biggest and most violent explosions in the Universe: a supernova.
But there’s a hitch. Read More
Attention all astronomers! There is a new Type Ia supernova that has been seen in the nearby spiral galaxy M101, and it’s very young — currently only about a day old! This is very exciting news; getting as much data on this event as possible is critical.
Most likely professional astronomers are already aware of the supernova, since observations have already been taken by Swift (no X-rays have yet been seen, but it’s early yet) and Hubble observations have been scheduled. Still, I would urge amateur astronomers to take careful observations of the galaxy.
[As an aside, I'll note that this supernova won't get bright enough to see naked eye and poses no threat at all to us here on Earth. It may be visible in decent-sized telescopes, though, and as you'll see this may be a very important event in the annals of astronomy.]
So why is this a big deal?