Unexpected Complex Molecules Found In Supernova Might Tell Us Where Stars Come From

Supernova 1987a. Noel Carboni & the ESA/ESO/NASA Photoshop FITS Liberator

Researchers have discovered a bunch of interesting molecules in the leftover material from an exploded star. The object in question, Supernova 1987a, is located 163,000 light-years away in the Great Magellanic Cloud.

The study, published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, is a detailed looked at the molecular composition and chemistry of a very young supernova remnant. The scientists detected silicon oxide and carbon monoxide, and also formylium (HCO+) and sulfur monoxide (SO), which hadn’t been seen before.

“This is the first time that we’ve found these species of molecules within supernovae, which questions our long-held assumptions that these explosions destroy all molecules and dust that are present within a star,” lead author Dr Mikako Matsuura, from Cardiff University, said in a statement.

When stars explode, they create the heavier elements seen in the universe. And the powerful bursts scatter the newly formed material across the heavens. This material will eventually be used to form new stars, so understanding its composition at the source is important.

“Our results have shown that as the leftover gas from a supernova begins to cool down to below ‑200°C, the many heavy elements that are synthesized can begin to harbor rich molecules, creating a dust factory,” Dr Matsuura added.

“What is most surprising is that this factory of rich molecules is usually found in conditions where stars are born. The deaths of massive stars may therefore lead to the birth of a new generation.”

 Artist's impression of Supernova 1987a. The red core is where the new molecules were spotted. A. Angelich; NRAO/AUI/NSF

The detection helped scientists confirm some intriguing facts about element formations. The Large Magellanic Cloud is a satellite galaxy of our own and it has fewer heavy elements. It is believed that supernovae in such an environment produce less neutron-rich isotopes, and this research confirms this idea.

The observations were possible thanks to the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA). The sophisticated observatory is made of 66 antennas that can study the universe in microwaves. This allowed the team to take a completely new approach to observing SN 1987a.

They were able to peer through to its very heart and see that there’s a lot more there for people to discover. The researchers hope to have more time on ALMA to look at the supernova remnant again. They would like to establish how abundant these molecules are and if there are more elusive molecules hidden among the gas.

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