Tech & Science

Flash-in-the-Pan Supernova: NASA Kepler Reveals New Kind of Exploding Star

Mysterious space light shows lasting just a few days have baffled astronomers for the past decade. Now, with a little help from NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope, researchers have discovered these brief, bright displays are a new kind of exploding star.

These flash-in-the-pan supernovas get a brief boost of brightness when they light up a bubble of gas and dust around the star. This gassy cocoon is the remnant of a near-death experience.

The research was published in the journal Nature Astronomy.

Known as fast-evolving luminous transients, or FELTs, these light bursts have been hard to pin down because they are so short.

3_27_Supernova Remnant The remnant of a type 1a supernova. Astronomers previously thought FELTs might be a failed type 1a supernova. These flash-in-the-pan supernovas get a brief boost of brightness when they light up a bubble of gas and dust around the star. U Texas/CXC/NASA

Most telescopes collect data on a patch of sky every few days. But Kepler—which was built for hunting exoplanets—takes a snapshot every 30 minutes. This allows it to catch a FELT in detail, taking place in the spiral arm of a galaxy some 1.3 billion light-years from Earth.

Astronomers previously thought that FELTs could be the afterglow of a gamma-ray burst—the most explosive events in the universe. They also thought FELTs might be a failed supernova in a system of two orbiting stars, or a supernova turbocharged by a neutron star with a strong magnetic field.

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Now, the researchers have figured out the FELT in question was a consequence of a star’s past near-death experiences. A large star in its death throes had belched out a bubble of dust and gas about a year before it finally exploded.

 

This cocoon trapped the kinetic energy of the star’s explosion and converted it into a brief but incredibly bright light, flashing for just a 10th of the length of a typical supernova.

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“When I first saw the Kepler data and realized how short this transient is, my jaw dropped. I said, ‘Oh wow!’” said Armin Rest, one of the study’s authors, in a NASA statement. “We collected an awesome light curve.”

“This is a new way for massive stars to die and distribute material back into space,” Rest, who works at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, added.

This new insight into supernovas is a byproduct of Kepler’s main activity: searching the skies for exoplanets. The next steps for the research, Rest said, will be to find more FELTs with sophisticated planet-hunting telescopes and refine the new model even further.

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