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By Looking Back Through Hubble Data, Astronomers Have Identified six Massive Stars Before They Exploded as Core-Collapse Supernovae

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The venerable Hubble Space Telescope has given us so much during the history of its service (32 years, 7 months, 6 days, and counting!) Even after all these years, the versatile and sophisticated observatory is still pulling its weight alongside more recent addition, like the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) and other members of NASA’s Great Observatories family. In addition to how it is still conducting observation campaigns, astronomers and astrophysicists are combing through the volumes of data Hubble accumulated over the years to find even more hidden gems.

A team led by Caltech’s recently made some very interesting finds in the Hubble archives, where they observed the sites of six supernovae to learn more about their progenitor stars. Their observations were part of the Hubble Space Telescope Snapshot program, where astronomers use HST images to chart the life cycle and evolution of stars, galaxies, and other celestial objects. From this, they were able to place constraints on the size, mass, and other key characteristics of the progenitor stars and what they experienced before experiencing core collapse.

 

The team was led by Dr. Schuyler D. Van Dyk, a senior research scientist with Caltech’s Infrared Processing and Analysis Center (IPAC). His teammates included researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, the Space Telescope Science Institute, the University of Arizona’s Steward Observatory, the University of Hawai’i’s Institute for Astronomy, and the School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Minnesota. Their findings were published in a paper titled “The disappearance of six supernova progenitors” that will appear in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

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The Hubble Ultra Deep Field seen in ultraviolet, visible, and infrared light. Image Credit: NASA, ESA, H. Teplitz and M. Rafelski (IPAC/Caltech), A. Koekemoer (STScI), R. Windhorst (Arizona State University), and Z. Levay (STScI)

As they indicate in their paper, the targets of their study were all nearby core-collapse supernovae (SNe) that Hubble imaged at high spatial resolutions. The images were part of the Hubble Snapshot program, created by the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) to provide a large sample of images for various targets. Every target is observed in a single orbit of Hubble around the Earth between other observation programs, allowing a degree of flexibility that is not possible with other observatories.

For their study, Van Dyk and his colleagues examined images of six extragalactic supernovae before and after they exploded – designated SN 2012A, SN 2013ej, SN 2016gkg, SN 2017eaw, SN 2018zd, and SN 2018aoq. With extragalactic targets, astronomers have difficulty knowing if the stars they identified were progenitors to the supernova, given the distance involved. As Van Dyk to Universe Today via email, the only way to be sure is to wait for the supernova to dim, then confirm that the progenitor star has disappeared:

“Since the supernova explosion is so luminous, we have to wait a number of years until it has faded enough that it is less luminous than was the progenitor. In a few of the cases we show in our paper, there is little question that the star that was there pre-explosion is now gone. In the other cases, we’re reasonably sure, but the supernova is still detectable and is just faint enough for us to infer that the progenitor has vanished. “

In a previous study, Van Dyk and several colleagues who were co-authors of this study investigated another supernova (iPTF13bvn) whose progenitor star disappeared. In this case, the research team relied on data obtained by Hubble of the SN site – as part of the Ultraviolet Ultra Deep Field (UVUDF) campaign – roughly 740 days after the star exploded. In 2013, Van Dyk led a study that used images from an earlier Snapshot program to confirm that the progenitor of SN 2011dh in the Whirlpool Galaxy (Messier 51) had disappeared.

The Whirlpool Galaxy (Spiral Galaxy M51, NGC 5194), a classic spiral galaxy located in the Canes Venatici constellation, and its companion NGC 5195. Credit: NASA/ESA

These and other papers over the years have shown that progenitor candidates can be directly identified from pre-explosion images. In this most recent study, Van Dyk and his colleagues observed supernovae in the later stages of their evolution to learn what mechanisms are powering them. In many cases, the mechanism is the decay of radioactive nuclei (in particular, radioactive nickel, cobalt, and iron) that were synthesized by the enormous energy of the explosion. But as he explained, they suspected that other mechanisms might be involved:

“However, we have indications that some supernovae inevitably have additional power sources — one possibility is that the light of the supernova has been scattered by interstellar dust immediate to the explosion, in the form of a ‘light echo’; another more likely possibility is that the shockwave associated with the explosion is interacting with gas that was deposited around the progenitor star by the star itself during the course of the star’s life, in the form of wind or outburst, that is, circumstellar matter. The ejecta from the explosion moving through and interacting with this circumstellar matter can result in luminous energy that can persist for years, even for decades.”

In short, the team was trying to estimate how many of the supernovae they observed evolved through radioactive decay versus more exotic powering mechanisms. Their results showed that SN 2012A, SN 2018zd, and SN 2018aoq had faded to the point where they were no longer detectable in the Hubble Snapshot images, whereas SN 2013ej, SN 2016gkg, and SN 2017eaw had faded just enough. Therefore, they could infer in all six cases that the progenitors had disappeared. However, not all were the result of a single massive star undergoing core collapse.

In the case of SN 2016gkg, the images acquired by Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC3) were of much higher spatial resolution and sensitivity than the images of the host galaxy, previously taken by the now-retired WFC2. This allowed them to theorize that SN 2016gkg was not the result of a single core-collapse supernova but a progenitor star interacting with a neighboring star. Said Van Dyk:

“So, in the old image, the progenitor looked like one “star,” whereas in the new images, we could see that the progenitor had to have been spatially distinct from the neighboring star. Therefore, we were able to obtain a better estimate of the progenitor’s luminosity and color, now uncontaminated by the neighbor, and from that, we were able to make some new inferences about the overall properties of the progenitor, or, in this case, progenitor system, since we characterized the new results using existing models of binary star systems.”

Artist’s impression of a supernova remnant. Credit: ESA/Hubble

Specifically, they determined that the progenitor belonged to the class of “stripped-envelope” supernovae (SESNe), in which the outer hydrogen H-rich envelope of the progenitor star has been significantly or entirely removed. They further estimated that the progenitor was the primary and its companion was likely a main sequence star. They even placed constraints on their respective masses before the explosion (4.6 and 17–20.5 solar masses, respectively).

After consulting images taken around the same time by another Snapshot program, they also noticed something interesting about SN 2017eaw. These images indicated that this supernova was especially luminous in the UV band (an “ultraviolet excess”). By combining these images with their data, Va Dyk and his team speculated that SN 2017eaw had an excess of light in the UV at the time it was observed, which was likely caused by interaction between the supernova shock and the circumstellar medium around that progenitor.

The team also noted that the dust created by a supernova explosion is a complicating factor due to how it cools as it expands outward. This dust, said Van Dyk, can obscure light from distant sources and lead to complications with the observations:

“The caveat here, then, is that the star that we saw pre-explosion might not be the progenitor at all, for instance and — again, because of the distances to the host galaxies — that star is within fractions of a pixel of the actual progenitor (physically, in the immediate neighborhood of the progenitor), such that, if the supernova has made dust, that dust is effectively blanketing both the supernova and that neighboring star. This is possible, but not inordinately likely. And it becomes a harder argument to make in those few cases where nothing is seen at the supernova position years later — as we point out in the paper, that would require enormous amounts of dust, which is likely physically not possible.”

Tracing the origins of supernovae is one of the many ways astronomers can learn more about the life cycle of stars. With improved instruments, data collection, and flexibility, they are able to reveal more about how our Universe evolved and will continue to change over time.

Further Reading: arXiv

 

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Rare ‘big fuzzy green ball’ comet visible in B.C. skies, a 50000-year sight

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In the night sky, a comet is flying by Earth for the first time in 50,000 years.

Steve Coleopy, of the South Cariboo Astronomy Club, is offering some tips on how to see it before it disappears.

The green-coloured comet, named C/2022 E3 (ZTF), is not readily visible to the naked eye, although someone with good eyesight in really dark skies might be able to see it, he said. The only problem is it’s getting less visible by the day.

“Right now the comet is the closest to earth and is travelling rapidly away,” Coleopy said, noting it is easily seen through binoculars and small telescopes. “I have not been very successful in taking a picture of it yet, because it’s so faint, but will keep trying, weather permitting.”

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At the moment, the comet is located between the bowl of the Big Dipper and the North Star but will be moving toward the Planet Mars – a steady orange-coloured point of light- in the night sky over the next couple of weeks, according to Coleopy.

“I have found it best to view the comet after 3:30 in the morning, after the moon sets,” he said. “It is still visible in binoculars even with the moon still up, but the view is more washed out because of the moonlight.”

He noted the comet looks like a “big fuzzy green ball,” as opposed to the bright pinpoint light of the stars.

“There’s not much of a tail, but if you can look through the binoculars for a short period of time, enough for your eyes to acclimatize to the image, it’s quite spectacular.”

To know its more precise location on a particular evening, an internet search will produce drawings and pictures of the comet with dates of where and when the comet will be in each daily location.

Coleopy notes the comet will only be visible for a few more weeks, and then it won’t return for about 50,000 years.


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Extreme species deficit of nitrogen-converting microbes in European lakes

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Sampling of Lake Constance water from 85 m depth, in which ammonia-oxidizing archaea make up as much as 40% of all microorganisms

Dr. David Kamanda Ngugi, environmental microbiologist at the Leibniz Institute DSMZ

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Leibniz Institute DSMZ

 

An international team of researchers led by microbiologists from the Leibniz Institute DSMZ-German Collection of Microorganisms and Cell Cultures GmbH in Braunschweig, Germany, shows that in the depths of European lakes, the detoxification of ammonium is ensured by an extremely low biodiversity of archaea. The researchers recently published their findings in the prestigious international journal Science Advances. The team led by environmental microbiologists from the Leibniz Institute DSMZ has now shown that the species diversity of these archaea in lakes around the world ranges from 1 to 15 species. This is of particularly concern in the context of global biodiversity loss and the UN Biodiversity Conference held in Montreal, Canada, in December 2022. Lakes play an important role in providing freshwater for drinking, inland fisheries, and recreation. These ecosystem services would be at danger from ammonium enrichment. Ammonium is an essential component of agricultural fertilizers and contributes to its remarkable increase in environmental concentrations and the overall im-balance of the global nitrogen cycle. Nutrient-poor lakes with large water masses (such as Lake Constance and many other pre-alpine lakes) harbor enormously large populations of archaea, a unique class of microorganisms. In sediments and other low-oxygen environments, these archaea convert ammonium to nitrate, which is then converted to inert dinitrogen gas, an essential component of the air. In this way, they contribute to the detoxification of ammonium in the aquatic environment. In fact, the species predominant in European lakes is even clonal and shows low genetic microdiversity between different lakes. This low species diversity contrasts with marine ecosystems where this group of microorganisms predominates with much greater species richness, making the stability of ecosystem function provided by these nitrogen-converting archaea potentially vulnerable to environmental change.

Maintenance of drinking water quality
Although there is a lot of water on our planet, only 2.5% of it is fresh water. Since much of this fresh water is stored in glaciers and polar ice caps, only about 80% of it is even accessible to us humans. About 36% of drinking water in the European Union is obtained from surface waters. It is therefore crucial to understand how environmental processes such as microbial nitrification maintain this ecosystem service. The rate-determining phase of nitrification is the oxidation of ammonia, which prevents the accumulation of ammonium and converts it to nitrate via nitrite. In this way, ammonium is prevented from contaminating water sources and is necessary for its final conversion to the harmless dinitrogen gas. In this study, deep lakes on five different continents were investigated to assess the richness and evolutionary history of ammonia-oxidizing archaea. Organisms from marine habitats have traditionally colonized freshwater ecosystems. However, these archaea have had to make significant changes in their cell composition, possible only a few times during evolution, when they moved from marine habitats to freshwaters with much lower salt concentrations. The researchers identified this selection pressure as the major barrier to greater diversity of ammonia-oxidizing archaea colonizing freshwaters. The researchers were also able to determine when the few freshwater archaea first appeared. Ac-cording to the study, the dominant archaeal species in European lakes emerged only about 13 million years ago, which is quite consistent with the evolutionary history of the European lakes studied.

Slowed evolution of freshwater archaea
The major freshwater species in Europe changed relatively little over the 13 million years and spread almost clonally across Europe and Asia, which puzzled the researchers. Currently, there are not many examples of such an evolutionary break over such long time periods and over large intercontinental ranges. The authors suggest that the main factor slowing the rapid growth rates and associated evolutionary changes is the low temperatures (4 °C) at the bottom of the lakes studied. As a result, these archaea are restricted to a state of low genetic diversity. It is unclear how the extremely species-poor and evolutionarily static freshwater archaea will respond to changes induced by global climate warming and eutrophication of nearby agricultur-al lands, as the effects of climate change are more pronounced in freshwater than in marine habitats, which is associated with a loss of biodiversity.

Publication: Ngugi DK, Salcher MM, Andre A-S, Ghai R., Klotz F, Chiriac M-C, Ionescu D, Büsing P, Grossart H-S, Xing P, Priscu JC, Alymkulov S, Pester M. 2022. Postglacial adaptations enabled coloniza-tion and quasi-clonal dispersal of ammonia oxidizing archaea in modern European large lakes. Science Advances: https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/sciadv.adc9392

Press contact:
PhDr. Sven-David Müller, Head of Public Relations, Leibniz Institute DSMZ-German Collection of Microorganisms and Cell Cultures GmbH
Phone: ++49 (0)531/2616-300
Mail: press@dsmz.de

About the Leibniz Institute DSMZ
The Leibniz Institute DSMZ-German Collection of Microorganisms and Cell Cultures is the world’s most diverse collection of biological resources (bacteria, archaea, protists, yeasts, fungi, bacteriophages, plant viruses, genomic bacterial DNA as well as human and animal cell lines). Microorganisms and cell cultures are collected, investigated and archived at the DSMZ. As an institution of the Leibniz Association, the DSMZ with its extensive scientific services and biological resources has been a global partner for research, science and industry since 1969. The DSMZ was the first registered collection in Europe (Regulation (EU) No. 511/2014) and is certified according to the quality standard ISO 9001:2015. As a patent depository, it offers the only possibility in Germany to deposit biological material in accordance with the requirements of the Budapest Treaty. In addition to scientific services, research is the second pillar of the DSMZ. The institute, located on the Science Campus Braunschweig-Süd, accommodates more than 82,000 cultures and biomaterials and has around 200 employees. www.dsmz.de

PhDr. Sven David Mueller, M.Sc.
Leibniz-Institut DSMZ
+49 531 2616300
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Scientists are closing in on why the universe exists

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Particle astrophysicist Benjamin Tam hopes his work will help us understand a question. A very big one.

“The big question that we are trying to answer with this research is how the universe was formed,” said Tam, who is finishing his PhD at Queen’s University.

“What is the origin of the universe?”

And to answer that question, he and dozens of fellow scientists and engineers are conducting a multi-million dollar experiment two kilometres below the surface of the Canadian Shield in a repurposed mine near Sudbury, Ontario.

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Ten thousand light-sensitive cameras send data to scientists watching for evidence of a neutrino bumping into another particle. (Tom Howell/CBC)

The Sudbury Neutrino Observatory (SNOLAB) is already famous for an earlier experiment that revealed how neutrinos ‘oscillate’ between different versions of themselves as they travel here from the sun.

This finding proved a vital point: the mass of a neutrino cannot be zero. The experiment’s lead scientist, Arthur McDonald, shared the Nobel Prize in 2015 for this discovery.

The neutrino is commonly known as the ‘ghost particle.’ Trillions upon trillions of them emanate from the sun every second. To humans, they are imperceptible except through highly specialized detection technology that alerts us to their presence.

Neutrinos were first hypothesized in the early 20th century to explain why certain important physics equations consistently produced what looked like the wrong answers. In 1956, they were proven to exist.

A digital image of a sphere that is blue and transparent with lines all over.
The neutrino detector is at the heart of the SNO+ experiment. An acrylic sphere containing ‘scintillator’ liquid is suspended inside a larger water-filled globe studded with 10,000 light-sensitive cameras. (Submitted by SNOLOAB)

Tam and his fellow researchers are now homing in on the biggest remaining mystery about these tiny particles.

Nobody knows what happens when two neutrinos collide. If it can be shown that they sometimes zap each other out of existence, scientists could conclude that a neutrino acts as its own ‘antiparticle’.

Such a conclusion would explain how an imbalance arose between matter and anti-matter, thus clarifying the current existence of all the matter in the universe.

It would also offer some relief to those hoping to describe the physical world using a model that does not imply none of us should be here.

A screengrab of two scientists wearing white hard hat helmets, clear googles and blue safety suits standing on either side of CBC producer holding a microphone. All three people are laughing.
IDEAS producer Tom Howell (centre) joins research scientist Erica Caden (left) and Benjamin Tam on a video call from their underground lab. (Screengrab: Nicola Luksic)

Guests in this episode (in order of appearance):

Benjamin Tam is a PhD student in Particle Astrophysics at Queen’s University.

Eve Vavagiakis is a National Science Foundation Astronomy and Astrophysics Postdoctoral Fellow in the Physics Department at Cornell University. She’s the author of a children’s book, I’m A Neutrino: Tiny Particles in a Big Universe.

Blaire Flynn is the senior education and outreach officer at SNOLAB.

Erica Caden is a research scientist at SNOLAB. Among her duties she is the detector manager for SNO+, responsible for keeping things running day to day.


*This episode was produced by Nicola Luksic and Tom Howell. It is part of an on-going series, IDEAS from the Trenches, some stories are below.

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