A newly discovered supernova that was only found six weeks ago is bright, weird and oddly informative about the way stellar explosions actually happen. Named SN 2014J, students and their professor in the United Kingdom came across the glowing spectacle on January 21, only about a week after it became visible enough that it could actually be detected, sitting away at 11.4 million light-years in distance. This supernova is the brightest one that has been discovered since SN 1987A was found, 27 years earlier. This type of supernova is called a “type Ia supernova,” which simply indicates that it is the type used to measure distances in the universe.
The supernova did have some rather weird characteristics, despite the informative nature it possesses. For instance, it brightens much faster than a typical type Ia supernova and what is even more interesting is that it was similar to a supernova observed by the Katzman Automatic Imaging Telescope (KAIT) last year. This other supernova was called SN 2013dy and both of these detected explosions, rapidly brighten in a very similar fashion.
According to Alex Filippenko, a researcher from the University of California, whose team also discovered the supernova, there have now been three recently observed supernovae with these same type of weird traits. Perhaps, what was once considered a normal type of supernova is actually the unusual type and these rapidly brightening versions are what is normal on a cosmic scale.
SN 2014J is housed in a galaxy called M82, which is approximately 11.4 million light years away from Earth. While that may sound extremely far, it is actually quite close in astronomical terms. This has easily become one of the brightest supernovae that has even been observed from Earth. When the findings of SN 2014J are looked at alongside SN 2013dy and another one, SN2011fe that was discovered in 2011 that had similar traits, brilliant new information can be hypothesized about the way stars might actually explode.
Type I supernovae are classified as such when their light curves exhibit a rather sharp maxima and then when they gradually die away. Type II supernovae do not have peaks that are quite as sharp at maxima and they die away more rapidly than type I. Type I supernovae contain about 10 billion solar luminosities while type II only contain about one billion solar luminosities.
It was actually very coincidental how the supernova was discovered within a very short time-frame between astronomers and researchers that were from the United Kingdom, the U.S. and from Japan as well. In Japan’s case in particular, it was almost by a fortunate accident as it was an amateur astronomer who made the astonishing discovery of the bright, weird and informative supernova. According to Filippenko, he believes that the way SN 2014J is behaving can help teach theorists something general about Type Ia supernovae that they need to understand. Filippenko believes that what has been observed as “normal” types of behavior in already existing supernovae is actually unusual and the new discovery could actually be what is normal for how these stars explode. Further research and more insights will likely help either prove or disprove this new theory about how supernovae do occur.
By Jonathan Holowka