From W.M. Keck Observatory (US) : “A Black Hole Triggers a Premature Supernova”

From W.M. Keck Observatory (US)

September 2, 2021 [Sorry, Keck, I do not know how I missed this.]

The first observation of a brand-new kind of supernova had been predicted by theorists but never before confirmed.

This illustration shows a massive star that is about to explode. the explosion was triggered after its dead-star companion (a black hole or neutron star) plunged into the star’s core. scientists say that the black hole or neutron star rammed into the massive star, and then, as it traveled inward over the course of centuries, ejected a spiral of material from the star’s atmosphere (pictured surrounding the star). when it reached the star’s core, material from the core rapidly fell onto the stellar corpse and this led to the launching of a pair of jets at nearly the speed of light. in this artist’s depiction, the jets are shown tunneling through the star, and will soon set off the supernova explosion. after a few years, the supernova will crash through the bulk of the ejected spiral, which extends to about 10,000 times the size of the star. this will create the luminous transient radio source observed by the very large array.
Credit: Chuck Carter.

In 2017 a particularly luminous and unusual source of radio waves was discovered in data taken by the Very Large Array (VLA) Sky Survey [VLASS]-a project that scans the night sky in radio wavelengths.

Now, led by The California Institute of Technology (US) graduate student Dillon Dong, a team of astronomers has established that the bright radio flare was caused by a black hole or neutron star crashing into its companion star in a never-before-seen process.

“Massive stars usually explode as supernovae when they run out of nuclear fuel,” says Gregg Hallinan, professor of astronomy at Caltech. “But in this case, an invading black hole or neutron star has prematurely triggered its companion star to explode.” This is the first time a merger-triggered supernova has ever been confirmed.

A paper about the findings, which includes data from W. M. Keck Observatory on Maunakea in Hawaiʻi, appears in the journal Science on September 3.

Bright Flares in the Night Sky

Hallinan and his team look for so-called radio transients—short-lived sources of radio waves that flare brightly and burn out quickly like a match lit in a dark room. Radio transients are an excellent way to identify unusual astronomical events, such as massive stars that explode and blast out energetic jets or the mergers of neutron stars.

Using Keck Observatory’s Low Resolution Imaging Spectrometer (LRIS) [below], the team then made follow-up optical observations of the radio source’s home galaxy and discovered a massive outflow of material ejected from a central location, suggesting there was an energetic explosion of a massive star.

As Dong sifted through the VLA’s massive dataset, he singled out an extremely luminous source of radio waves from the VLA survey called VT 1210+4956. This source is tied for the brightest radio transient ever associated with a supernova.

Dong determined that the bright radio energy was originally a star surrounded by a thick and dense shell of gas. This gas shell had been cast off the star a few hundred years before the present day. VT 1210+4956, the radio transient, occurred when the star finally exploded in a supernova and the material ejected from the explosion interacted with the gas shell. Yet, the gas shell itself, and the timescale on which it was cast off from the star, were unusual, so Dong suspected that there might be more to the story of this explosion.

Two Unusual Events

Following Dong’s discovery, Caltech graduate student Anna Ho (PhD ’20) suggested that this radio transient be compared with a different catalog of brief bright events in the X-ray spectrum. Some of these X-ray events were so short-lived that they were only present in the sky for a few seconds of Earth time. By examining this other catalog, Dong discovered a source of X-rays that originated from the same spot in the sky as VT 1210+4956. Through careful analysis, Dong established that the X-rays and the radio waves were likely coming from the same event.

“The X-ray transient was an unusual event—it signaled that a relativistic jet was launched at the time of the explosion,” says Dong. “And the luminous radio glow indicated that the material from that explosion later crashed into a massive torus of dense gas that had been ejected from the star centuries earlier. These two events have never been associated with each other, and on their own they’re very rare.”

A Mystery Solved

So, what happened? After careful modeling, the team determined the most likely explanation—an event that involved some of the same cosmic players that are known to generate gravitational waves.

They speculated that a leftover compact remnant of a star that had previously exploded—that is, a black hole or a neutron star—had been closely orbiting around a star. Over time, the black hole had begun siphoning away the atmosphere of its companion star and ejecting it into space, forming the torus of gas. This process dragged the two objects ever closer until the black hole plunged into the star, causing the star to collapse and explode as a supernova.

The X-rays were produced by a jet launched from the core of the star at the moment of its collapse. The radio waves, by contrast, were produced years later as the exploding star reached the torus of gas that had been ejected by the inspiraling compact object.

Astronomers know that a massive star and a companion compact object can form what is called a stable orbit, in which the two bodies gradually spiral closer and closer over an extremely long period of time. This process forms a binary system that is stable for millions to billions of years but that will eventually collide and emit the kind of gravitational waves that were discovered by LIGO in 2015 and 2017.

However, in the case of VT 1210+4956, the two objects instead collided immediately and catastrophically, producing the blasts of X-rays and radio waves observed. Although collisions such as this have been predicted theoretically, VT 1210+4956 provides the first concrete evidence that it happens.

Serendipitous Surveying

The VLA Sky Survey produces enormous amounts of data about radio signals from the night sky, but sifting through that data to discover a bright and interesting event such as VT 1210+4956 is like finding a needle in a haystack. Finding this particular needle, Dong says, was, in a way, serendipitous.

“We had ideas of what we might find in the VLA survey, but we were open to the possibility of finding things we didn’t expect,” explains Dong. “We created the conditions to discover something interesting by conducting loosely constrained, open-minded searches of large data sets and then taking into account all of the contextual clues we could assemble about the objects that we found. During this process you find yourself pulled in different directions by different explanations, and you simply let nature tell you what’s out there.”
ABOUT LRIS [below]

The Low Resolution Imaging Spectrometer (LRIS) is a very versatile and ultra-sensitive visible-wavelength imager and spectrograph built at the California Institute of Technology by a team led by Prof. Bev Oke and Prof. Judy Cohen and commissioned in 1993. Since then it has seen two major upgrades to further enhance its capabilities: the addition of a second, blue arm optimized for shorter wavelengths of light and the installation of detectors that are much more sensitive at the longest (red) wavelengths. Each arm is optimized for the wavelengths it covers. This large range of wavelength coverage, combined with the instrument’s high sensitivity, allows the study of everything from comets (which have interesting features in the ultraviolet part of the spectrum), to the blue light from star formation, to the red light of very distant objects. LRIS also records the spectra of up to 50 objects simultaneously, especially useful for studies of clusters of galaxies in the most distant reaches, and earliest times, of the universe. LRIS was used in observing distant supernovae by astronomers who received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2011 for research determining that the universe was speeding up in its expansion.

See the full article here.
See also the NRAO article here.
See also the Caltech article here .

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To advance the frontiers of astronomy and share our discoveries with the world.

The W. M. Keck Observatory (US) operates the largest, most scientifically productive telescopes on Earth. The two, 10-meter optical/infrared telescopes on the summit of Mauna Kea on the Island of Hawaii feature a suite of advanced instruments including imagers, multi-object spectrographs, high-resolution spectrographs, integral-field spectrometer and world-leading laser guide star adaptive optics systems. Keck Observatory is a private 501(c) 3 non-profit organization and a scientific partnership of the California Institute of Technology, the University of California and NASA.

Today Keck Observatory is supported by both public funding sources and private philanthropy. As a 501(c)3, the organization is managed by the California Association for Research in Astronomy (CARA), whose Board of Directors includes representatives from the California Institute of Technology and the University of California, with liaisons to the board from NASA and the Keck Foundation.

Keck UCal


Keck 1

HIRES – The largest and most mechanically complex of the Keck’s main instruments, the High Resolution Echelle Spectrometer breaks up incoming starlight into its component colors to measure the precise intensity of each of thousands of color channels. Its spectral capabilities have resulted in many breakthrough discoveries, such as the detection of planets outside our solar system and direct evidence for a model of the Big Bang theory.

height=”375″ class=”size-full wp-image-32389″ /> Keck High-Resolution Echelle Spectrometer (HIRES), at the Keck I telescope.[/caption]

LRIS – The Low Resolution Imaging Spectrograph is a faint-light instrument capable of taking spectra and images of the most distant known objects in the universe. The instrument is equipped with a red arm and a blue arm to explore stellar populations of distant galaxies, active galactic nuclei, galactic clusters, and quasars.

VISIBLE BAND (0.3-1.0 Micron)

MOSFIRE – The Multi-Object Spectrograph for Infrared Exploration gathers thousands of spectra from objects spanning a variety of distances, environments and physical conditions. What makes this huge, vacuum-cryogenic instrument unique is its ability to select up to 46 individual objects in the field of view and then record the infrared spectrum of all 46 objects simultaneously. When a new field is selected, a robotic mechanism inside the vacuum chamber reconfigures the distribution of tiny slits in the focal plane in under six minutes. Eight years in the making with First Light in 2012, MOSFIRE’s early performance results range from the discovery of ultra-cool, nearby substellar mass objects, to the detection of oxygen in young galaxies only 2 billion years after the Big Bang.

OSIRIS – The OH-Suppressing Infrared Imaging Spectrograph is a near-infrared spectrograph for use with the Keck I adaptive optics system. OSIRIS takes spectra in a small field of view to provide a series of images at different wavelengths. The instrument allows astronomers to ignore wavelengths where the Earth’s atmosphere shines brightly due to emission from OH (hydroxl) molecules, thus allowing the detection of objects 10 times fainter than previously available.

Keck 2

DEIMOS – The Deep Extragalactic Imaging Multi-Object Spectrograph is the most advanced optical spectrograph in the world, capable of gathering spectra from 130 galaxies or more in a single exposure. In ‘Mega Mask’ mode, DEIMOS can take spectra of more than 1,200 objects at once, using a special narrow-band filter.

NIRSPEC – The Near Infrared Spectrometer studies very high redshift radio galaxies, the motions and types of stars located near the Galactic Center, the nature of brown dwarfs, the nuclear regions of dusty starburst galaxies, active galactic nuclei, interstellar chemistry, stellar physics, and solar-system science.

ESI – The Echellette Spectrograph and Imager captures high-resolution spectra of very faint galaxies and quasars ranging from the blue to the infrared in a single exposure. It is a multimode instrument that allows users to switch among three modes during a night. It has produced some of the best non-AO images at the Observatory.

KCWI – The Keck Cosmic Web Imager is designed to provide visible band, integral field spectroscopy with moderate to high spectral resolution, various fields of view and image resolution formats and excellent sky-subtraction. The astronomical seeing and large aperture of the telescope enables studies of the connection between galaxies and the gas in their dark matter halos, stellar relics, star clusters and lensed galaxies.

NEAR-INFRARED (1-5 Micron)

ADAPTIVE OPTICS – Adaptive optics senses and compensates for the atmospheric distortions of incoming starlight up to 1,000 times per second. This results in an improvement in image quality on fairly bright astronomical targets by a factor 10 to 20.

LASER GUIDE STAR ADAPTIVE OPTICS [pictured above] – The Keck Laser Guide Star expands the range of available targets for study with both the Keck I and Keck II adaptive optics systems. They use sodium lasers to excite sodium atoms that naturally exist in the atmosphere 90 km (55 miles) above the Earth’s surface. The laser creates an “artificial star” that allows the Keck adaptive optics system to observe 70-80 percent of the targets in the sky, compared to the 1 percent accessible without the laser.

NIRC-2/AO – The second generation Near Infrared Camera works with the Keck Adaptive Optics system to produce the highest-resolution ground-based images and spectroscopy in the 1-5 micron range. Typical programs include mapping surface features on solar system bodies, searching for planets around other stars, and analyzing the morphology of remote galaxies.

The Near Infrared Echellette Spectrograph (NIRES) is a prism cross-dispersed near-infrared spectrograph built at the California Institute of Technology by a team led by Chief Instrument Scientist Keith Matthews and Prof. Tom Soifer. Commissioned in 2018, NIRES covers a large wavelength range at moderate spectral resolution for use on the Keck II telescope and observes extremely faint red objects found with the Spitzer and WISE infrared space telescopes, as well as brown dwarfs, high-redshift galaxies, and quasars.

Future Instrumentation

KCRM – The Keck Cosmic Reionization Mapper will complete the Keck Cosmic Web Imager (KCWI), the world’s most capable spectroscopic imager. The design for KCWI includes two separate channels to detect light in the blue and the red portions of the visible wavelength spectrum. KCWI-Blue was commissioned and started routine science observations in September 2017. The red channel of KCWI is KCRM; a powerful addition that will open a window for new discoveries at high redshifts.

KPF – The Keck Planet Finder (KPF) will be the most advanced spectrometer of its kind in the world. The instrument is a fiber-fed high-resolution, two-channel cross-dispersed echelle spectrometer for the visible wavelengths and is designed for the Keck II telescope. KPF allows precise measurements of the mass-density relationship in Earth-like exoplanets, which will help astronomers identify planets around other stars that are capable of supporting life.