Astronomers Witness a Dying Star Reach Its Explosive End
Two Hawai’i Telescopes Capture a Massive Star Moments Before Going Supernova
Haleakalā and Maunakea, Hawaiʻi – For the very first time, 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 it collapsed into a Type II supernova.
Using two Hawaiʻi telescopes – the University of Hawaiʻi Institute for Astronomy Pan-STARRS on Haleakalā, Maui and W. M. Keck Observatory on Maunakea, Hawaiʻi Island – a team of researchers conducting the Young Supernova Experiment (YSE) transient survey observed the red supergiant during its last 130 days leading up to its deadly detonation.
“This is a breakthrough in our understanding of what massive stars do moments before they die,” says Wynn Jacobson-Galán, an NSF Graduate Research Fellow at UC Berkeley and lead author of the study. “Direct detection of pre-supernova activity in a red supergiant star has never been observed before in an ordinary Type II supernova. For the first time, we watched a red supergiant star explode!”
The discovery is published in today’s issue of The Astrophysical Journal.
Pan-STARRS first detected the doomed massive star in Summer of 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, or SN 2020tlf, using Keck Observatory’s Low Resolution Imaging Spectrometer (LRIS). The data showed direct evidence of dense circumstellar material surrounding the star at the time of explosion, likely the same exact gas that Pan-STARRS had imaged the red supergiant star violently ejecting earlier in the summer.
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
“Keck was instrumental in providing direct evidence of a massive star transitioning into a supernova explosion,” says senior author Raffaella Margutti, an associate professor of astronomy at UC Berkeley. “It’s like watching a ticking time bomb. 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 (DEIMOS) and Near Infrared Echellette Spectrograph (NIRES), they determined SN 2020tlf’s progenitor red supergiant star, located in the NGC 5731 galaxy about 120 million light-years away as seen from Earth, was 10 times more massive than the Sun.
The discovery defies previous ideas of how red supergiant stars evolve right before blowing up. Prior to this, all red supergiants observed before exploding were relatively quiescent: they showed no evidence of violent eruptions or luminous emission, as was observed prior to SN 2020tlf. However, this novel detection of bright radiation coming from a red supergiant in the final year before exploding suggests that at least some of these stars must undergo significant changes in their internal structure that then results in the tumultuous ejection of gas moments before they collapse.
Margutti and Jacobson-Galán conducted most of the study during their time at Northwestern University, with Margutti serving as an Associate Professor of Physics and Astronomy and member of CIERA (Center for Interdisciplinary Exploration and Research in Astrophysics), and Jacobson-Galán as a graduate student.
The team’s discovery paves a path forward for transient surveys like YSE to hunt for luminous radiation coming from red supergiants, and gather more evidence that such behavior could signal the imminent, supernova demise of a massive star.
“I am most excited by all of the new ‘unknowns’ that have been unlocked by this discovery,” says Jacobson-Galán. “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.”
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.
The DEep Imaging and Multi-Object Spectrograph (DEIMOS) boasts the largest field of view (16.7arcmin by 5 arcmin) of any of the Keck Observatory instruments, and the largest number of pixels (64 Mpix). It is used primarily in its multi-object mode, obtaining simultaneous spectra of up to 130 galaxies or stars. Astronomers study fields of distant galaxies with DEIMOS, efficiently probing the most distant corners of the universe with high sensitivity.
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. Support for this technology was generously provided by the Mt. Cuba Astronomical Foundation.
ABOUT W. M. KECK OBSERVATORY
The W. M. Keck Observatory telescopes are among the most scientifically productive on Earth. The two 10-meter optical/infrared telescopes atop Maunakea on the Island of Hawaiʻi feature a suite of advanced instruments including imagers, multi-object spectrographs, high-resolution spectrographs, integral-field spectrometers, and world-leading laser guide star adaptive optics systems. Some of the data presented herein were obtained at Keck Observatory, which is a private 501(c) 3 non-profit organization operated as a scientific partnership among the California Institute of Technology, the University of California, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The Observatory was made possible by the generous financial support of the W. M. Keck Foundation. The authors wish to recognize and acknowledge the very significant cultural role and reverence that the summit of Maunakea has always had within the Native Hawaiian community. We are most fortunate to have the opportunity to conduct observations from this mountain.