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Astronomers Capture Red Supergiant Star Exploding in Massive Supernova – For the Very First Time

Red Supergiant

An artist’s impression of a red supergiant star in the final year of its life emitting a tumultuous cloud of gas. This suggests at least some of these stars undergo significant internal changes before going supernova. Credit: W.M. Keck Observatory/Adam Makarenko

Astronomers Capture Red Supergiant’s Death Throes

“For the first time, we watched a red supergiant star explode,” researcher says.

For the first time ever, astronomers have imaged in real time the dramatic end to a red supergiant’s life — watching the massive star’s rapid self-destruction and final death throes before collapsing into a type II supernova.

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An artist’s rendition of a red supergiant star transitioning into a Type II supernova, emitting a violent eruption of radiation and gas on its dying breath before collapsing and exploding. Credit: W. M. Keck Observatory/Adam Makarenko

Although the work was conducted at Northwestern, where Jacobson-Galán was a National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellow, he has since moved to UC Berkeley. Northwestern co-authors include Deanne Coppejans, Charlie Kilpatrick, Giacomo Terreran, Peter Blanchard and Lindsay DeMarchi, who are all members of Northwestern’s Center for Interdisciplinary and Exploratory Research in Astrophysics (CIERA).

‘We’ve never confirmed such violent activity’

The University of Hawaiʻi Institute for AstronomyPan-STARRS on Haleakala, Maui, first detected the doomed massive star in summer 2020 via the huge amount of light radiating from the red supergiant. A few months later, in fall of 2020, a supernova lit the sky.

The team quickly captured the powerful flash and obtained the very first spectrum of the energetic explosion, named supernova 2020tlf (SN 2020tlf) using the W.M. Keck Observatory’s Low Resolution Imaging Spectrometer on Maunakea, Hawaiʻi. The data showed direct evidence of dense circumstellar material surrounding the star at the time of explosion, likely the same gas that Pan-STARRS had imaged the red supergiant star violently ejecting earlier in the summer.

“It’s like watching a ticking time bomb,” said Raffaella Margutti, an adjunct associate professor at CIERA and the paper’s senior author. “We’ve never confirmed such violent activity in a dying red supergiant star where we see it produce such a luminous emission, then collapse and combust, until now.”

The team continued to monitor SN 2020tlf after the explosion. Based on data obtained from Keck Observatory’s Deep Imaging and Multi-Object Spectrograph and Near Infrared Echellette Spectrograph, the researchers determined SN 2020tlf’s progenitor red supergiant star — located in the NGC 5731 galaxy about 120 million light-years away from Earth — was 10 times more massive than the sun.

Remote possibilities

Margutti and Jacobson-Galán conducted most of the study during their time at Northwestern, with Margutti serving as an associate professor of physics and astronomy and member of CIERA, and Jacobson-Galán as a graduate student in Margutti’s research group. Margutti is now an associate professor of astronomy and astrophysics at UC Berkeley.

Northwestern’s remote access to Keck Observatory’s telescopes was integral to their research. From the University’s Evanston campus, astronomers can connect with an on-site telescope operator in Hawaiʻi and choose where to position the telescope. By bypassing long-distance travel to Hawaiʻi, astronomers save precious observing time — often catching transient events like supernovas, which can quickly flare up and then swiftly vanish.

“This significant discovery of a red supergiant supernova is yet one more strong indication of the importance of Northwestern’s investment in access to top private telescope facilities, including the Keck Observatory,” said Vicky Kalogera, the Daniel I. Linzer Distinguished University Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Northwestern’s Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and director of CIERA. “The Keck telescopes, currently the best on our planet, uniquely enable scientific advances of this caliber as CIERA researchers have shown since our Keck partnership started just a few years ago.”

Margutti, Jacobson-Galán and their Northwestern co-authors are members of the Young Supernova Experiment, which uses the Pan-STARRS telescope to catch supernovae right after they explode.

“I am most excited by all of the new ‘unknowns’ that have been unlocked by this discovery,” Jacobson-Galán said. “Detecting more events like SN 2020tlf will dramatically impact how we define the final months of stellar evolution, uniting observers and theorists in the quest to solve the mystery on how massive stars spend the final moments of their lives.”

Reference: “Final Moments. I. Precursor Emission, Envelope Inflation, and Enhanced Mass Loss Preceding the Luminous Type II Supernova 2020tlf” by W. V. Jacobson-Galán, L. Dessart, D. O. Jones, R. Margutti, D. L. Coppejans, G. Dimitriadis, R. J. Foley, C. D. Kilpatrick, D. J. Matthews, S. Rest, G. Terreran, P. D. Aleo, K. Auchettl, P. K. Blanchard, D. A. Coulter, K. W. Davis, T. J. L. de Boer, L. DeMarchi, M. R. Drout, N. Earl, A. Gagliano, C. Gall, J. Hjorth, M. E. Huber, A. L. Ibik, D. Milisavljevic, Y.-C. Pan, A. Rest, R. Ridden-Harper, C. Rojas-Bravo, M. R. Siebert, K. W. Smith, K. Taggart, S. Tinyanont, Q. Wang and Y. Zenati, 6 January 2022, The Astrophysical Journal.
DOI: 10.3847/1538-4357/ac3f3a

The study, “Final Moments I: Precursor emission, envelope inflation and enhanced mass loss preceding the luminous type II supernova 2020tlf,” was supported by (function(d, s, id){ var js, fjs = d.getElementsByTagName(s)[0]; if (d.getElementById(id)) return; js = d.createElement(s); js.id = id; js.src = "//connect.facebook.net/en_US/sdk.js#xfbml=1&version=v2.6"; fjs.parentNode.insertBefore(js, fjs); }(document, 'script', 'facebook-jssdk'));

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