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January 10, 2019
Many stars explode as luminous supernovae when, swollen with age, they run out of fuel for nuclear fusion. But some stars can go supernova simply because they have a close and pesky companion star that, one day, perturbs its partner so much that it explodes.
These latter events can happen in binary star systems, where two stars attempt to share dominion. While the exploding star gives off lots of evidence about its identity, astronomers must engage in detective work to learn about the errant companion that triggered the explosion.
An X-ray/infrared composite image of G299, a Type Ia supernova remnant in the Milky Way Galaxy approximately 16,000 light years away.NASA/Chandra X-ray Observatory/University of Texas/2MASS/University of Massachusetts/Caltech/NSF
On Jan. 10 at the 2019 American Astronomical Society meeting in Seattle, an international team of astronomers announced that they have identified the type of companion star that made its partner in a binary system, a carbon-oxygen white dwarf star, explode. Through repeated observations of SN 2015cp, a supernova 545 million light years away, the team detected hydrogen-rich debris that the companion star had shed prior to the explosion.
“The presence of debris means that the companion was either a red giant star or similar star that, prior to making its companion go supernova, had shed large amounts of material,” said University of Washington astronomer Melissa Graham, who presented the discovery and is lead author on the accompanying paper accepted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal.
The supernova material smacked into this stellar litter at 10 percent the speed of light, causing it to glow with ultraviolet light that was detected by the Hubble Space Telescope and other observatories nearly two years after the initial explosion. By looking for evidence of debris impacts months or years after a supernova in a binary star system, the team …