Celestial Pig Pens and new tricks for old scopes

It takes a lot of detective work to figure out the nature of a type Ia supernova. Celestial Pig Pens and new tricks from old telescopes are contributing to the effort. That’s what we learned at the most recent meeting of Astronomy on Tap Seattle.

Messy Siblings: Supernovae in Binary Systems

Dr. Melissa Graham is a project science analyst for the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, working out of the Astronomy Department at the University of Washington. Her main research focus is supernovae. In particular, she’s doing a lot of work on type Ia supernovae, which occur in binary star systems. One of the stars involved will be a carbon-oxygen white dwarf star.

“It’s a star that wasn’t massive enough to fuse anything else inside the carbon layers,” Graham explained. Outer layers of hydrogen and helium are thrown off in a planetary nebula phase, so the carbon and oxygen are what’s left.

Melissa Graham
Melissa Graham. UW photo.

“Carbon-oxygen white dwarf stars are very compact, very dense, about the size of the Earth but they can be up to about 1.4 times the mass of the Sun,” Graham said. These stars are pretty stable as stars go, so they don’t blow up under normal circumstances.

“When we do see these kind of supernovae that are clearly the explosion of carbon-oxygen white dwarf stars we have to wonder why,” she said. It turns out there are two possible scenarios. The binary can be a pair of carbon-oxygen white dwarf stars that spiral in on each other, merge, and then explode. Or the binary can include one white dwarf and a more typical hydrogen-rich companion star.

“In this case the companion star can feed material onto this carbon-oxygen white dwarf star, might make it go over 1.4 solar masses, become unstable, and then explode,” Graham said.

Which is which?

The key to figuring out which of these scenarios actually occurred is to take a look at the area around the supernova. If the companion is a more hydrogen-rich companion star, the neighborhood can get a little messy.

“It’s sort of like a celestial Pig Pen star that leaves a lot of material lying around,” Graham said. A blast from a supernova can interact with this material and cause it to brighten. The trouble is that astronomers typically only observe type Ia supernovae for a couple of months; they fade quickly. So if this extra material is far away from the event, they might not see the interaction. The answer is patience, to look at the supernova sites for up to 2-3 years after.

Graham did exactly that, using the Hubble Space Telescope to keep an eye on the locations of 65 type Ia supernovae.

“Out of these 65, I very luckily found one” in which there was brightening much later. They checked the spectrum of the light and found hydrogen, a sure sign that the companion in this particular type Ia supernova was a Pig Pen. Graham suspects that up to five percent of such explosions involve messy sibling stars.

Graham looks forward to having the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) come on line. She expects it will find some 10 million supernovae in a decade.

“This marks a massive increase in our ability to both find and characterize supernovae,” she said.

Old scope, new tricks

While we wait for LSST an old workhorse telescope is doing interesting work in a similar vein. Professor Eric Bellm of the UW works with the Zwicky Transient Facility (ZTF), which uses the 48-inch telescope at Palomar observatory in California. The scope is a Schmidt, completed in 1948, and for years it was the largest Schmidt telescope in the world. It’s main function at first was to use its wide-field view of the sky to create maps that helped astronomers point Palomar Mountain’s 200-inch Hale Telescope.

Eric Bellm
Eric Bellm. UW photo.

The 48-inch was used to do numerous sky surveys over the years. It discovered many asteroids, and Mike Brown used it to find the dwarf planets he used to kill Pluto. The old photographic plates gave way to modern CCDs, and Bellm became the project scientist for the Zwicky Transient Facility—named for astronomer Fritz Zwicky, a prolific discoverer of supernovae—in 2011.

They outfitted the scope with a new camera with 16 CCDs that are four inches per side. They got some big filters for it and put in a robotic arm that could change the filters without getting in the way of the camera. They started surveying in March of last year and can photograph much of the sky on any given night.

“That’s letting us look for things that are rare, things that are changing quickly, things that are unusual,” Bellm said.

Examples of what the ZTF has found include a pair of white dwarfs that are spinning rapidly around each other, with a period of just seven minutes. They can see the orbits decay because of gravitational wave radiation. It has discovered more than 100 young type 1a supernovae. And it found an asteroid with the shortest “year” of any yet discovered; its orbit is entirely within that of Venus.

It’s doing the same sort of work that the LSST will do when it comes online.

“It’s super cool that we’ve got this more than 70 year old telescope that we’re doing cutting-edge science with thanks to the advances of technology,” Bellm said.

Astronomy on Tap Seattle is organized by graduate students in astronomy at the University of Washington, and typically meets on the fourth Wednesday of each month at Peddler Brewing Company in Ballard. The next event is set for September 25.