The Great, Exploding Monty Python Star

  • Share
  • Read Later
Marco Lorenzi / Getty Image

Remember Mr. Creosote? If you don’t, he’s worth getting to know — but only if you have a very strong stomach. Mr. Creosote was the colossally obese character in Monty Python’s Meaning of Life who gorged himself on buckets of food in a French restaurant, somehow surviving his own gluttony, but only until he capped off the meal with a single “waffer-thin mint.” Then he, um, exploded. Well, Mr. Creosote, meet the Type 1a supernova. You two characters have a lot in common.

Supernovas come in more than just one flavor. The most common variety occurs when a star has exhausted all or most of its hydrogen fuel and its decaying core suddenly collapses, generating a burst of gravitational energy that triggers a massive explosion — one that may briefly appear brighter than an entire galaxy. A somewhat more complex dynamic plays out in what’s known as a Type 1a supernova, which is the eruption of a small, dead carcass of a star known as a white dwarf. In general, white dwarfs don’t have sufficient mass to trigger supernovas, but if they’re part of a binary system with a nearby red giant, the dwarf may suck in enough matter from its much bigger sibling that it eventually blows. The waffer-thin mint on a cosmic scale.

(MORE: Supernova Countdown: Giant Star Could Explode Any Day Now)

Type 1a supernovas are rare — typically there are only one or two per century in an average-size galaxy. More common are smaller, garden-variety white-dwarf explosions — novas without the super prefix — sometimes occurring repeatedly as a single white dwarf vacuums up and blasts away red giant material over and over again. The Milky Way itself is home to a recurrent nova called RS Ophiuchi, which is located 5,000 light-years from Earth and erupts roughly once every 20 years. What has never been seen is a recurring nova that eventually reaches the super level. The mere fact of shedding matter in the smaller bursts prevents it from ever attaining the mass for a truly big blow.

Or at least that was always the thinking. But a paper published in the Aug. 24 issue of Science provides evidence of the first ever recurring nova that did go super. The method used to detect the phenomenon is almost as impressive as the fact that it happened at all.

(PHOTOS: Happy Birthday, Hubble! A Stunning New Picture for a Special Day)

The exploding star, known as PTF 11kx, is found in the constellation Lynx, 600 million light-years from Earth. It was detected on Jan. 16, 2011, by the Palomar Observatory in California. The light signature pouring into the 48-in. telescope that night was unmistakably that of a supernova, and shortly after its detection, Peter Nugent, a senior scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and Jeffrey Silverman, a postdoctoral student at the University of California, Berkeley, began taking spectroscopic measurements of the expanding cloud of gas and other matter, trying to learn more about its chemical signature. They found a great deal of calcium mixed in with the other elements — and that surprised them.

Calcium is a common byproduct of stellar detonations, but this expanding shell of the material was too far away from the freshly exploded star and moving too slowly to be the result of the supernova that had just occurred. It would be easy enough to explain the calcium’s presence if the star had gone nova once before, releasing a burst of the element in all directions and then slowing steadily as it encountered the stellar wind that permeates space. But that would mean that the elusive recurrent nova that goes super would finally have been found. The only way to determine if this was so would be to watch. If the calcium signal faded and slowed further and then lit up explosively when the fresh blast of faster star debris caught up with it and energized it, the deal would be sealed. Exactly 58 days later, that’s what happened.

(PHOTO: Explosions in the Sky: The Cygnus Loop Nebula)

“This was the most exciting supernova I’ve ever studied,” postdoctoral researcher Ben Dilday of the University of California at Santa Barbara, who was the lead author of the Science paper, said in a statement. “For several months, almost every new observation showed something we’d never seen before.”

It’s not clear how common recurrent Type 1a novas that eventually go supernova are, th0ugh Silverman suspects that the mere fact that astronomers have been studying novas for so long and never seen one like this before is a sign that they’re pretty rare. It’s not even clear whether many folks outside the astronomy community will care terribly much that a sub-subcategory of the familiar supernova has at last been identified. But the astronomers care deeply, and well they might. Cosmic phenomena do a very good job of concealing themselves from us. Every curtain we part makes the universe a more transparent — and, in this case, literally more dazzling — place.

PHOTOS: New Planetary Nebula Dazzling Astronomers

20 comments
Sort: Newest | Oldest
Papa Foote
Papa Foote

I Love This Wonderful "Happening" out in "Stars" - it keeps "Me" - "Optimistic" about the "Future", and "Everyone" that "Is"or "Will" be Living on Our Earth Planet!

-The Old Goat-

ERenger
ERenger

Why is "Everything" in "Quotes?" 

MeJustMe
MeJustMe

Now if only the resulting nebula would be officially name the Mr Creosote Nebula that would be fantastic!

Pppa
Pppa

"Supernovas come in more than just one flavor. "

Supernovae.

Yacko
Yacko

We are no longer in Rome, so we don't have to do…

max4374
max4374

Who in the universe, other than nerds like me, cares?! Now, if the supernova was actually named "Monty Python", well then! THAT would be a universe-shaking event!

:)

Padresfanindenver
Padresfanindenver

I'd rather watch the Monty Phython bit than read this story!

bertafiable
bertafiable

Still more intresting would be.....................

How long would it take for a monkey with a wooden leg to kick all the seeds out of a dill pickle?

Pun Intended.............

ERenger
ERenger

I don't see a pun here. 

ERenger
ERenger

This article seems to be lacking a lot of important information. 

The point seems to be that even though there are many repeating nova caused by a white dwarf sucking material off of a red giant, this is the first repeating supernova caused by a white dwarf sucking material off of a red giant. That raises some questions that the article does not answer.

Some readers may know the difference between a nova and supernova at the end of a star's life. But what exactly is the difference between a nova and a supernova when they are caused by a white dwarf sucking material off of a red giant? Is it just the size of the explosion? 

Also the article describes a Type 1a supernova and the smaller repeating nova and says that the supernovae are not expected to repeat because, "The mere fact of shedding matter in the smaller bursts prevents it from ever attaining the mass for a truly big blow."

That does not really make sense. If a Type 1a supernova can happen once, then why not twice? Does the Type 1a supernova usually destroy the white dwarf remnant or the red giant partner? If not, why can't it happen again? Does the supernova usally happen once and then settle into a pattern of repeating nova instead of repeating supernova?

MeJustMe
MeJustMe

I would suggest you check out the Aug 24 issue of Science if you want a more technical and detailed description.

LeftyCoaster: now I can't get that image of stellar porn out of my mind.

LeftyCoaster
LeftyCoaster

I am sorry, truly.  As much as I would like to absorb the technical nature of your comment, I can't get past the image of a white dwarf sucking off a red giant without a juvenile reaction that renders my comprehension skills almost completely impotent.

ERenger
ERenger

Now I've completely forgotten my original question. 

New question: In your scenario of a white dwarf sucking off a red giant, which one explodes? I assume it's the giant, but does the dwarf also explode?

Keith Richard
Keith Richard

Yeah. like some kind of twisted fairy tale......

Howie
Howie

Re-read, your questions are answered here.  The supernova is a one time event, once it has happened the remnants are basically a burnt cinder that will never explode again.  The smaller recurring nova, is common, and the theory is that because it blows regularly it never gets enough mass to be a supernova.  This is the only time we know of where a recurring nova has moved up the scale to be a supernova.  The big question here is, what interrupted the cycle to allow enough mass to accumulate to create a supernova?

ERenger
ERenger

I'm not actually sure that is what the article is saying. 

ERenger
ERenger

Matt, I've read it more than once, and i've decided maybe the article is ambiguous. 

I originally interpreted it as saying that this is a case where there has been in the past one supernova, and now that star remnant has caused a second Type 1a supernova --- a repeating supernova. Not a recurring nova that has moved up to a supernova. But maybe it is saying what you think. 

It would be nice if the author would clarify.

Matt Holmes
Matt Holmes

That's exactly what the article is saying. I'm not sure you read it. Because I interpreted it exactly as Howie did.