The big star that couldn’t become a supernova
One star’s “massive fail” could help solve a mystery
Published on May 25, 2017
|A team of astronomers at The Ohio State University watched a star disappear and possibly become a black hole. Instead of becoming a black hole through the expected process of a supernova, the black hole candidate formed through a "failed supernova." The team used NASA's Hubble and Spitzer Space Telescopes and the Large Binocular Telescope to observe and monitor the star throughout the past decade. If confirmed, this would be the first time anyone has witnessed the birth of a black hole and the first discovery of a failed supernova. Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Katrina Jackson|
COLUMBUS, Ohio—For the first time in history, astronomers have been able to watch as a dying star was reborn as a black hole.
It went out with a whimper instead of a bang.
The star, which was 25 times as massive as our sun, should have exploded in a very bright supernova. Instead, it fizzled out—and then left behind a black hole.
“Massive fails” like this one in a nearby galaxy could explain why astronomers rarely see supernovae from the most massive stars, said Christopher Kochanek, professor of astronomy at The Ohio State University and the Ohio Eminent Scholar in Observational Cosmology.
As many as 30 percent of such stars, it seems, may quietly collapse into black holes—no supernova required.
“The typical view is that a star can form a black hole only after it goes supernova,” Kochanek explained. “If a star can fall short of a supernova and still make a black hole, that would help to explain why we don’t see supernovae from the most massive stars.”
He leads a team of astronomers who have been using the Large Binocular Telescope (LBT) to look for failed supernovae in other galaxies. They published their latest results in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.
Among the galaxies they’ve been watching is NGC 6946, a galaxy 22 million light-years away that is nicknamed the “Fireworks Galaxy” because supernovae frequently happen there—indeed, SN 2017eaw, discovered on May 14th, is shining near maximum brightness now. Starting in 2009, one particular star in the Fireworks Galaxy, named N6946-BH1, began to brighten weakly. By 2015, it appeared to have winked out of existence.
The astronomers aimed the Hubble Space Telescope at the star’s location to see if it was still there but merely dimmed. They also used the Spitzer Space Telescope to search for any infrared radiation emanating from the spot. That would have been a sign that the star was still present, but perhaps just hidden behind a dust cloud.
All the tests came up negative. The star was no longer there. By a careful process of elimination, the researchers eventually concluded that the star must have become a black hole.
It’s too early in the project to know for sure how often stars experience massive fails, but Scott Adams, a former Ohio State student who recently earned his Ph.D. doing this work, was able to make a preliminary estimate.
“N6946-BH1 is the only likely failed supernova that we found in the first seven years of our survey. During this period, six normal supernovae have occurred within the galaxies we’ve been monitoring, suggesting that 10 to 30 percent of massive stars die as failed supernovae,” he said.
"This is just the fraction that would explain the very problem that motivated us to start the survey.”
To study co-author Krzystof Stanek, the really interesting part of the discovery is the implications it holds for the origins of very massive black holes—the kind that the LIGO experiment detected via gravitational waves. (LIGO is the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory.)
It doesn’t necessarily make sense, said Stanek, professor of astronomy at Ohio State, that a massive star could undergo a supernova—a process which entails blowing off much of its outer layers—and still have enough mass left over to form a massive black hole on the scale of those that LIGO detected.
“I suspect it’s much easier to make a very massive black hole if there is no supernova,” he concluded.
Adams is now an astrophysicist at Caltech. Other co-authors were former Ohio State astronomer Jill Gerke and University of Oklahoma astronomer Xinyu Dai. Their research was supported by the National Science Foundation.
The Large Binocular Telescope is an international collaboration among institutions in the United Sates, Italy and Germany. The LBT Corporation partners are: the University of Arizona on behalf of the Arizona University System; the Instituto nazionale di Astrofisica, Italy; the LBT Beteiligungsesellschaft, Germany, representing the Max Planck Society, the Astrophysical Institute of Potsdam and Heidelberg University; Ohio State University; and the Research Corporation, on behalf of the University of Notre Dame, University of Minnesota and University of Virginia.