There are massive and extremely bright stars in the universe that were long suspected by astronomers to die spectacular, explosive deaths, and a new study has put forth evidence for the first time that these cosmic behemoths indeed come to a violent end.
The new study helped scientists confirm that one star belonging to the Wolf-Rayet category, which describes one of the biggest luminous stars in the universe, died in a violent explosion called a Type IIb supernova. Using ground- and space-based telescopes, scientists were able to observe the supernova, named SN 2013cu, in great detail while obtaining valuable insights into the life and death of such a star.
“Newly developed observational capabilities now enable us to study exploding stars in ways we could only dream of before. We are moving towards real-time studies of supernovae,” Gal-Yam of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, and the study’s lead author, said, in a statement.
Wolf-Rayet stars are more than 20 times larger and nearly five times hotter than the sun, which is 330,000 times as massive as Earth and has a surface temperature of about 18,000 degrees Fahrenheit, scientists said in the study, published in the journal Nature.
As part of the study, scientists used resources at the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center and the Energy Sciences Network, both of which are located at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, or Berkeley Lab, in California.
According to scientists, some giant stars become Wolf-Rayets in the final stages of their lives and they enrich galaxies with the heavy chemical elements that eventually become the building blocks for planets and life. Scientists said that they are gradually determining which kinds of stars explode and what kinds of elements they produce as they disintegrate.
Scientists said that the massive stars reach the Wolf-Rayet phase before the explosion. When nuclear fusion -- an event common to all stars regardless of their size -- slows, the heavy elements in the star’s center rise to the surface setting off powerful winds, which shed a tremendous amount of material into space.
“This discovery was totally shocking, it opens up a whole new research area for us,” Peter Nugent of the Berkeley Lab said. “With our largest telescopes you might have a chance of getting a spectrum of a Wolf-Rayet star in the nearest galaxies to our Milky Way, perhaps 4 million light years away. SN 2013cu is 360 million light years away—further by almost factor of 100.”