“The Real Life Version of the Supernova That Never Was”
The Supernova Hub, in the heart of a remote mountain in Northern California, is a hot, noisy place, filled with an assortment of colorful, neon-orange, white-hot beams of plasma that sparkle in the sun.
“It’s just a crazy place,” says John Cavanagh, a professor of astronomy at the University of California, Berkeley, and the director of the Hub.
“There are things you can’t see.”
Cavanah and a team of other scientists and engineers have been mapping the sky through telescopes and other sensors to map out the composition of the nebula’s plasma, which they have dubbed “the helium valance electron.”
The helium atoms, which make up most of the gas in a supernova, are extremely dense.
That makes it extremely difficult to study, but scientists are now getting closer.
The helium valences are composed of about two thirds of the helium atoms—about 10 times the mass of the sun—and are believed to form in the supernova when a massive explosion rips apart the star, releasing massive amounts of energy.
The electrons in the gas, which are heavier than the helium and are ejected as they burn, also contribute to the helium valience, according to Cavanag.
“These are the atoms that are being produced when you get the big bang,” he says.
“That’s where we get the helium-argon fusion reaction.”
Scientists are now tracking the gas as it passes through the star and back through the galaxy.
The results are now showing that the gas is more stable and contains fewer helium atoms than previously thought.
The study, published online this month in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, will also help refine the model for the evolution of the supernovae.
It is an early step in a larger quest to understand the properties of the universe as it was when the universe was about 10.8 billion years old.
“The helium-valence electron is one of the first of these very early stellar simulations that we’ve gotten to actually observe,” says Robert Gebhardt, a planetary scientist at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland.
The new data will help scientists understand the conditions in the early universe, which would have allowed supernovas to be born.
“This is an important contribution to understanding the early Universe and to understand how it evolved,” Gebhart says.
Scientists have also discovered new stars, including the famous WF-8, which is known to have been born in a giant star explosion, and two others called KIC 8462852 and KIC 869928, both of which were born when a star exploded at a time when the Universe was just beginning to be formed.
“If you can get a little bit of time before a supernova is born, you can find a lot of things,” says Gebhard.
“You get a lot more information about what’s going on in the universe.”