"This is a striking result that provides a key insight about the mechanism underlying these explosions," said Sayan Chakraborti, of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA). "This object fills in a gap between GRBs and other supernovae of this type, showing us that a wide range of activity is possible in such blasts," he added.
The object, called Supernova 2012ap (SN 2012ap) is what astronomers term a core-collapse supernova. This type of blast occurs when the nuclear fusion reactions at the core of a very massive star no longer can provide the energy needed to hold up the core against the weight of the outer parts of the star. The core then collapses catastrophically into a superdense neutron star or a black hole. The rest of the star's material is blasted into space in a supernova explosion.
Heavy stars live like rock stars: they live fast, become big, and die young. Low mass stars, on the other hand, are more persistent, and live longer. The ages of the former stars are measured in millions to billions of years; the expected lifetimes of the latter are measured in trillions. Low mass stars are the turtle that beats the hare.
But why do we want to study the evolution of low mass stars, and their less than imminent demise? There are various good reasons. First, galaxies are composed of stars —and other things, but here we focus on the stars. Second, low-mass stars are by far the most numerous stars in the galaxy, about 70% of stars in the Milky Way are less than 0.3 solar masses (also denoted as 0.3M☉). Third, low-mass stars provide useful insights into stellar evolution: if you want to understand why heavier mass stars evolve in a certain way —e.g. develop into red giants— it is helpful to take a careful look at why the lowest mass stars do not.
Though the physics behind Cepheid variability is well-understood, we still have significant difficulties to overcome in order to improve the zero-point of Leavitt’s law. Cepheids are supergiants. They are stars several times the mass of our Sun that have evolved off of the main sequence of the stellar color-magnitude diagram (in other words they’re in the stellar ‘afterlife’). Because bigger stars burn their fuel faster than smaller stars, Cepheids are also young stars. Thus they are often found in the dusty regions of galaxies so we have to deal with absorption, reddening, and dust scattering when we observe them. The period-luminosity relationship may also have a dependence on metallicity (the fraction of atoms in the star that are heavier than helium) that we still don’t fully understand.
Another common problem that we face when using Cepheids—and the focus of today’s paper!—is the presence of a binary companion. In fact, more than 50% of Galactic Cepheids are expected to have at least one companion. The number of Cepheids with binary companions is so high that we can’t deal with them by simply throwing out the ones that have companions. Separating the luminosity of the Cepheid from its companion is important if we want to use the period luminosity relationship.
A University of Arizona-led team of astronomers found that the type of supernovae commonly used to measure distances in the universe fall into distinct populations not recognized before. The findings have implications for our understanding of how fast the universe has been expanding since the Big Bang.
"To be clear, this research does not suggest that there is no acceleration," Milne said, "just that there might be less of it."
"We're proposing that our data suggest there might be less dark energy than textbook knowledge, but we can't put a number on it," he added. "Until our paper, the two populations of supernovae were treated as the same population. To get that final answer, you need to do all that work again, separately for the red and for the blue population."