X-ray vision can reveal birth of supernovae'

Astronomers have discovered new evidence that X-ray detectors in space could be the first to witness new supernovae that signal the death of massive stars.

Researchers led by the University of Leicester have measured an excess of X-ray radiation in the first few minutes of collapsing massive stars, which may be the signature of the supernova shock wave first escaping from the star.

"The most massive stars can be tens to a hundred times larger than the Sun. When one of these giants runs out of hydrogen gas it collapses catastrophically and explodes as a supernova, blowing off its outer layers which enrich the Universe," researcher Dr Rhaana Starling said.

"But this is no ordinary supernova; in the explosion narrowly confined streams of material are forced out of the poles of the star at almost the speed of light.

"These so-called relativistic jets give rise to brief flashes of energetic gamma-radiation called gamma-ray bursts, which are picked up by monitoring instruments in Space, that in turn alert astronomers," Starling said in a statement.

Gamma-ray bursts are known to arise in stellar deaths because coincident supernovae are seen with ground-based optical telescopes about ten to twenty days after the high energy flash.

The true moment of birth of a supernova, when the star's surface reacts to the core collapse, often termed the supernova shock breakout, is missed.

Only the most energetic supernovae go hand-in-hand with gamma-ray bursts, but for this sub-class it may be possible to identify X-ray emission signatures of the supernova in its infancy.

If the supernova could be detected earlier, by using the X-ray early warning system, astronomers could monitor the event as it happens and pinpoint the drivers behind one of the most violent events in our Universe.

The X-ray detectors being used for this research are on the X-Ray Telescope on-board the Swift satellite. Data from Swift of a number of gamma-ray bursts with visible supernovae have shown an excess in X-rays received compared with expectations. This excess is thermal emission, also known as blackbody radiation.

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