NASA's Chandra homes in on supernova trigger

Scientists are close to discovering the cause of SN 2014J

Credit: NASA/SAO/CXC/R. Margutti et al

By comparing X-ray data from before and after explosion, scientists could discover a trigger.

It was one of the closest supernova explosions ever recorded. Now, new data from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory is revealing what may have triggered SN 2014J on 21 January 2014.

Scientists have used information gathered by the space scope to rule out possible triggers. In the past, Type Ia supernovae like SN 2014J have been triggered when a white dwarf star has drawn too much material from its companion star, the result of this cosmic union – a vast cloud of gas that produces a significant number of X-rays.

But after searching the location of the explosion, M82, no substantial X-ray source was found.

Raffaella Margutti was part of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics team that led the study, "While it may sound a bit odd, we actually learned a great deal about this supernova by detecting absolutely nothing," he said.

"Now we can essentially rule out that the explosion was caused by a white dwarf continuously pulling material from a companion star."

Instead, the merger of two white dwarf stars could have triggered the colossal explosion. If this were the case, very few X-rays would have been released prior to the supernova.

As it stands, further observations are needed to confirm the trigger of the explosion. But it is a great milestone for the team to be able to rule out one of the main possible explanations.

"It's crucial that we understand exactly how these stars explode because so much is riding on our observations of them for cosmology," said project scientist Jerod Parrent. "SN 2014J might be a chance of a lifetime to study one of these supernovas in detail as it happens."


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