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Astronomers Have Identified a New Kind of Supernova We Never Knew Existed

Manwon Lender

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We often think of supernova explosions as inevitable for large stars. Big star runs out of fuel, gravity collapses its core, and BOOM! But astronomers have long thought at least one type of large star didn't end with a supernova. Known as Wolf-Rayet stars, they were thought to end with a quiet collapse of their core into a black hole. But a new discovery finds they might become supernovae after all. Wolf-Rayet stars are among the most massive stars known. They are at the end of their short lives, but rather than simply running out of fuel and exploding, they push out their outer layers with an extremely powerful stellar wind.

This produces a surrounding nebula rich in ionized helium, carbon, and nitrogen, but almost no hydrogen. The surface temperature of the remaining star can be over 200,000 K, making them the most luminous stars known. This latest study shows that at least some Wolf-Rayet stars do become supernovae. The team looked at the spectrum of a supernova known as SN 2019hgp, which was discovered by the Zwicky Transient Facility (ZTF). The supernova's spectrum had bright emission light indicating the presence of carbon, oxygen, and neon, but not hydrogen or helium. When the team looked at the data more closely, they found these particular emission lines weren't caused by elements of the supernova directly.


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