Astronomers have spotted a new type of explosion that might be the most powerful class of supernovae we’ve ever seen.
Led by Queen’s University Belfast, the study is published in Nature Astronomy.
The astronomers used telescopes in Chile and Hawaii to detect a variety of objects of interest, and the brightest of those was a source called PS1-10adi.
This outburst of energy was considerably brighter than a regular supernova, located in a galaxy 2.4 billion light-years away. It was actually first spotted in 2010, but astronomers since measured its evolution over three years. Supernovae usually dim in less than a year.
“The discovery we made has revealed explosions capable of releasing an amount of energy ten times bigger than normal explosions,” Dr Cosimo Inserra from the University of Southampton, one of the study’s co-authors, said in a statement.
“Our data show that events like this are not very unusual and challenge our knowledge of exploding and disrupting stars.”
The size of the explosion means that we can’t quite explain what caused it yet. A supernova is one of the possibilities, caused by a star hundreds of times more massive than our Sun.
“If they are supernova explosions then their properties are more extreme than we have ever observed before, and are likely connected to the central environments of the host galaxies,” lead author Dr Erkki Kankare said in the statement.
The other possibility is that this was the result of a lower mass star being eaten by a supermassive black hole. This is known as a tidal disruption event (TDE).
PS1-10adi was not the only new type of explosion the astronomers saw. They saw a lot of others just like it, suggesting there may be a new class of explosion in the universe that we just hadn’t noticed before. Previously, we’d thought these sources were related to black hole activity.
“We propose that they are a distinct, and probably not uncommon, class of transients [relatively brief events] that have not been recognized as such until now,” the team writes.
They hope that upcoming telescopes, like the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope in Chile, due to come online at the end of this decade, may find even more of them.