A Hubble Space Telescope image (left) of the galaxy M82 shows hydrogen gas (red) breaking out from the central starburst (box), a region of intense star formation. A May 2008 VLA image of the starburst region (top left) clearly shows the supernova (SN 2008iz), which probably exploded in January 2008. The two high-resolution VLBA images (lower right) show an expanding shell at the scale of a few light days and proves that the transient source was the result of a supernova. (Milde Science Communication; HST image: NASA, ESA and the Hubble Heritage Team [STScI/AURA]; Radio images: A. Brunthaler, MPIfR)
BERKELEY — The chance discovery last month of a rare radio supernova - an exploding star seen only at radio wavelengths and undetected by optical or X-ray telescopes - underscores the promise of new, more sensitive radio surveys to find supernovas hidden by gas and dust.
"This supernova is the nearest supernova in five years, yet is completely obscured in optical, ultraviolet and X-rays due to the dense medium of the galaxy," said Geoffrey Bower, assistant professor of astronomy at the University of California, Berkeley, and coauthor of a paper describing the discovery in the June issue of the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics. "This just popped out; in the future, we want to go from discovery of radio supernovas by accident to specifically looking for them."
Sky surveys like the one just launched by the Allen Telescope Array, which will look for bright but short-lived radio bursts from supernovas, will provide better estimates of the rate of star formation in nearby galaxies, Bower said. Radio emissions from supernovas also can help astronomers understand how stars explode and what happens before their cores collapse, since radio emissions are caused when debris from the explosion collides with the stellar wind previously shed by the stars.
Bower’s colleagues are Andreas Bunthaler, Karl M. Menten and Christian Henkel of the Max Planck Institute for Radioastronomy in Bonn, Germany; Mark J. Reid of Harvard University’s Center for Astrophysics; and Heino Falcke of the University of Nijmegen in the Netherlands.
The radio supernova was discovered on April 8 in M82, a small irregular galaxy located nearly 12 million light years from Earth in the M81 galaxy group, by the Very Large Array, a New Mexico facility operated by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO). It was subsequently confirmed by NRAO’s Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA), a 10-telescope array whose baseline stretches from Hawaii to the Virgin Islands, providing the sharpest vision of any telescope on Earth.
The Allen Telescope Array, comprising 42 of a planned 350 radio dishes and supported by UC Berkeley and the SETI Institute of Mountain View, Calif., last week began a major survey of the radio sky that should turn up many more such radio supernovas, Bower said. While the VLA and VLBA have very narrow fields of view unsuited to all-sky surveys, the ATA’s wide-angle view is ideal for scanning the full sky once a day, which is necessary to find sources that brighten and dim over several days.