In a cascade of superlatives that belies the traditional cerebral reserve of their profession, astronomers reported yesterday that they had seen the brightest and most powerful stellar explosion ever recorded.
The cataclysm — a monster more than a hundred times as energetic as the typical supernova in which the more massive stars end their lives — may be an example, they said, of a completely new type of explosion. Such a blast, proposed but never seen, would explain how the earliest and most massive stars in the universe ended their lives and strewed new elements across space to fertilize future stars and planets.
Such supermassive stars are extremely rare in the modern universe but are believed to have been common among the first stars that formed when the universe was less than a billion years old.
Now here is an interesting tit-bit. It has been proposed that we humans (and life on Earth) is made out of star stuff. Star material (Carbon and other slightly complex molecules) landed on Earth and because of unique circumstances (an accident, really) life came into being. Isn’t this huge exploding star support this theory? Anyway, back to the explosion.
The astronomers first suspected that the supernova’s dramatic output was caused by the shock wave of a white dwarf exploding into a dense cloud of hydrogen. When observations with the Chandra X-ray Observatory failed to find enough X-rays to support that idea, the group was forced to consider an alternative: that the luminosity was produced by the decay of radioactive nickel. But to match the observations, the star would have had to produce 22 solar masses of radioactive nickel — way off scale for the core collapse model.
In desperation, the astronomers turned to a theory proposed nearly 40 years ago by Zalman Barkat of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and his colleagues. The intensity of radiation in the cores of supermassive stars could be so great, they said, that pairs of electrons and their antimatter opposites, positrons, would be created.