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9 February 2015

First pair of merging stars destined to become supernova found

Artist’s impression of two white dwarf stars destined to merge and create a Type Ia supernova

Astronomers using ESO facilities in combination with telescopes in the Canary Islands have identified two surprisingly massive stars at the heart of the planetary nebula Henize 2-428. As they orbit each other the two stars are expected to slowly get closer and closer, and when they merge, about 700 million years from now, they will contain enough material to ignite a vast supernova explosion. The results will appear online in the journal Nature on 9 February 2015.

Image of the planetary nebula Henize 2-428 from the Very Large Telescope

The team of astronomers, led by Miguel Santander-García (Observatorio Astronómico Nacional, Alcalá de Henares, Spain; Instituto de Ciencia de Materiales de Madrid (CSIC), Madrid, Spain), has discovered a close pair of white dwarf stars — tiny, extremely dense stellar remnants — that have a total mass of about 1.8 times that of the Sun. This is the most massive such pair yet found [1] and when these two stars merge in the future they will create a runaway thermonuclear explosion leading to a Type Ia supernova [2].

The planetary nebula Henize 2-428 in the constellation of Aquila

The team who found this massive pair actually set out to try to solve a different problem. They wanted to find out how some stars produce such strangely shaped and asymmetric nebulae late in their lives. One of the objects they studied was the unusual planetary nebula [3] known as Henize 2-428.

“When we looked at this object’s central star with ESO’s Very Large Telescope, we found not just one but a pair of stars at the heart of this strangely lopsided glowing cloud,” says coauthor Henri Boffin from ESO.

Wide-field view of the sky around the planetary nebula Henize 2-428

This supports the theory that double central stars may explain the odd shapes of some of these nebulae, but an even more interesting result was to come.

"Further observations made with telescopes in the Canary Islands allowed us to determine the orbit of the two stars and deduce both the masses of the two stars and their separation. This was when the biggest surprise was revealed,"  reports Romano Corradi, another of the study's authors and researcher at the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias (Tenerife, IAC).

Artist’s impression of two white dwarf stars merging and creating a Type Ia supernova

They found that each of the stars has a mass slightly less than that of the Sun and that they orbit each other every four hours. They are sufficiently close to one another that, according to the Einstein’s theory of general relativity, they will grow closer and closer, spiralling in due to the emission of gravitational waves, before eventually merging into a single star within the next 700 million years.

Zooming in on the unusual planetary nebula Henize 2-428

The resulting star will be so massive that nothing can then prevent it from collapsing in on itself and subsequently exploding as a supernova. "Until now, the formation of supernovae Type Ia by the merging of two white dwarfs was purely theoretical," explains David Jones, coauthor of the article and ESO Fellow at the time the data were obtained. “The pair of stars in Henize 2-428 is the real thing!”

"It's an extremely enigmatic system," concludes Santander-García. "It will have important repercussions for the study of supernovae Type Ia, which are widely used to measure astronomical distances and were key to the discovery that the expansion of the Universe is accelerating due to dark energy".


[1] The Chandrasekhar limit is the greatest mass that a white dwarf star can have and support itself against gravitational collapse. It has a value of about 1.4 times the mass of the Sun.

[2] Type Ia supernovae occur when a white dwarf star acquires extra mass — either by accretion from a stellar companion or by merging with another white dwarf. Once the mass exceeds the Chandrasekhar limit the star loses its ability to support itself and starts to contract. This increases the temperature and a runaway nuclear reaction occurs and blows the star to pieces.

[3] Planetary nebulae have nothing to do with planets. The name arose in the eighteenth century as some of these objects resembled the discs of the distant planets when seen through small telescopes.

More information:

This research was presented in a paper entitled “The double-degenerate, super-Chandrasekhar nucleus of the planetary nebula Henize 2-428” by M. Santander-García et al., to appear online in the journal Nature on 9 February 2015.

The team is composed of M. Santander-García (Observatorio Astronómico Nacional, Alcalá de Henares, Spain; Instituto de Ciencia de Materiales de Madrid (CSIC), Madrid, Spain), P. Rodríguez-Gil (Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias, La Laguna, Tenerife, Spain [IAC]; Universidad de La Laguna, Tenerife, Spain), R. L. M. Corradi (IAC; Universidad de La Laguna), D. Jones (IAC; Universidad de La Laguna), B. Miszalski (South African Astronomical Observatory, Observatory, South Africa [SAAO]), H. M. J. Boffin (ESO, Santiago, Chile), M. M. Rubio-Díez (Centro de Astrobiología, CSIC-INTA, Torrejón de Ardoz, Spain) and M. M. Kotze (SAAO).

ESO is the foremost intergovernmental astronomy organisation in Europe and the world’s most productive ground-based astronomical observatory by far. It is supported by 16 countries: Austria, Belgium, Brazil, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Finland, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom, along with the host state of Chile. ESO carries out an ambitious programme focused on the design, construction and operation of powerful ground-based observing facilities enabling astronomers to make important scientific discoveries. ESO also plays a leading role in promoting and organising cooperation in astronomical research. ESO operates three unique world-class observing sites in Chile: La Silla, Paranal and Chajnantor. At Paranal, ESO operates the Very Large Telescope, the world’s most advanced visible-light astronomical observatory and two survey telescopes. VISTA works in the infrared and is the world’s largest survey telescope and the VLT Survey Telescope is the largest telescope designed to exclusively survey the skies in visible light. ESO is a major partner in ALMA, the largest astronomical project in existence. And on Cerro Armazones, close to Paranal, ESO is building the 39-metre European Extremely Large Telescope, the E-ELT, which will become “the world’s biggest eye on the sky”.


Research paper in Nature:

Photos of the VLT:

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Images, Text, Credits: ESO/L. Calçada/IAU and Sky & Telescope/Digitized Sky Survey 2/Videos: ESO/L. Calçada/Digitized Sky Survey 2/N. Risinger ( Music: movetwo.

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