An international team of astronomers has made a bizarre discovery – a star that refuses to stop shining despite exploding more than once over a period of 50 years. The explosions of stars, known as supernovae, have been observed in the thousands and in all cases they marked the death of a star.
But a new study, published in the journal Nature, challenges known theories about the death of stars. Their observations included data from Keck Observatory on Maunakea in Hawaii. “The spectra we obtained at Keck Observatory showed that this supernova looked like nothing we had ever seen before. This, after discovering nearly 5,000 supernovae in the last two decades,” said study co-author Peter Nugent from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in the US.
“While the spectra bear a resemblance to normal hydrogen-rich core-collapse supernova explosions, they grew brighter and dimmer at least five times more slowly, stretching an event which normally lasts 100 days to over two years,” Nugent said. The supernova, named iPTF14hls, was discovered in September 2014 by the Palomar Transient Factory. At the time, it looked like an ordinary supernova.
Several months later, astronomers at Las Cumbres Observatory in the US noticed the supernova was growing brighter again after it had faded. When astronomers went back and looked at archival data, they were astonished to find evidence of an explosion in 1954 at the same location. This star somehow survived that explosion and exploded again in 2014.
“This supernova breaks everything we thought we knew about how they work. It’s the biggest puzzle I’ve encountered in almost a decade of studying stellar explosions,” said lead author Iair Arcavi, a NASA Einstein postdoctoral fellow at LCO and the University of California Santa Barbara. The study calculated that the star that exploded was at least 50 times more massive than the Sun and probably much larger.
Supernova iPTF14hls may have been the most massive stellar explosion ever seen. The size of this explosion could be the reason that conventional understanding of the death of stars failed to explain this event. Astronomers continue to monitor the supernova, which remains bright three years after it was discovered.