Subaru sees Tycho's New Star via Echo Light: Ken'ichi Nomoto and his international team
December 1, 2008
Institute for the Physics and Mathematics of the Universe (IPMU)
A team of international astronomers Ken’ichi Nomoto and Masaomi Tanaka (Institute for the Physics and Mathematics of the Universe), Tomonori Usuda and Takashi Hattori (Subaru Telescope), and Oliver Krause, Miwa Goto, and Stephan Birkmann (Max-Planck-Institut for Astronomy) recently completed a study using the Subaru Telescope that observed ‘light echos’ in Tycho’s supernova remnant, i.e., light from a supernova that originally was seen in 1572 by astronomer Tycho Brahe, bounced off surrounding dust particles, and now reached Earth 436 years later. By comparing the observed spectroscopic data with supernova spectra we see today, the team succeeded to determine that this supernova 1572 was exactly a very typical type Ia supernova.
The results of this study appear in the 4 December 2008 issue of the science journal Nature.
Journal: Nature (4 December 2008), Vol. 456, pp. 617-619
Title: Tycho Brahe’s 1572 supernova as a standard type Ia as revealed by its light-echo spectrum
Authors: O. Krause, M. Tanaka, T. Usuda, T. Hattori, M. Goto, S.M. Birkmann, and K. Nomoto
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e-mail. nomoto _at_ astron.s.u-tokyo.ac.jp
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A few months ago astronomers at the Subaru Telescope went back in time and observed light from a “new star” that originally was seen on 11 November 1572 by astronomer Tycho Brahe and others. What Brahe observed as a bright star in the constellation Cassiopeia, outshining even Venus, was actually a rare supernova event where the violent death of a star sends out an extremely bright outburst of energy. He studied the brightness and color of the “new star” until March 1574 when it faded from view. The remains of this milestone event are seen today as Tycho’s supernova remnant.
On 24 September 2008, using the Faint Object Camera and Spectrograph (FOCAS) instrument at Subaru, the light echoes were broken apart into the signatures of atoms (spectra) present when Supernova 1572 exploded, bearing all the information about the nature of the original blast. The results showed clear absorption of once-ionized silicon and absence of the hydrogen H-alpha emission. The findings were very typical of a Type Ia supernova.
During the study, the astronomers tested theories of the explosion mechanism and the nature of the supernova progenitor. For Type Ia supernovae, a white dwarf star in a close binary system is the typical source, and as the gas of the companion star accumulates onto the white dwarf, the white dwarf is progressively compressed, and eventually sets off a runaway nuclear reaction inside that eventually leads to a cataclysmic supernova outburst. However, as Type Ia supernovae with luminosity brighter/fainter than standard ones have been reported recently, the understanding of the supernova outburst mechanism has come under debate. In order to explain the diversity of the Type Ia supernovae, the team studied the outburst mechanisms in detail.
The comparisons with template spectra of Type Ia supernovae found outside our Galaxy shows that Tycho's supernova belongs to the majority class of Normal Type Ia, and, as such, is thought to be one of the best candidates for Type Ia in our galaxy. This finding is significant because Type Ia supernovae are the primary source of heavy elements in the Universe, and play an important role as cosmological distance indicators, serving as ‘standard candles’ because of constant luminosity at the peak of their light curve. In addition, the team discovered that Supernova 1572 shows a hint of an aspherical/nonsymmetrical explosion, which, in turn, could put limits on explosion models for future studies.
This observational study at Subaru established how light echoes can be used in a spectroscopic manner to study supernovae outburst that occurred hundreds of years ago. The light echoes, when observed at different position angles from the source, enabled the team to look at the supernova in a three dimensional view. For the future, this 3D aspect will accelerate the study of the outburst mechanism of supernova based on their spatial structure, which, to date, has been impossible with distant supernovae in galaxies outside the Milky Way.