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The Supernova Problem

Cosmin Deaconu
Oct 28, 2008
(Submitted as coursework for Physics 204, Stanford University, Fall 2008)

Supernovae, ephemeral and

remarkably luminous, are celestial
objects believed to be the result of the
complete destruction of a star. While
modern astronomical tools have
resulted in many observations of
supernovae, the exact mechanisms
that can result in such energetic
events are still unknown.

Historical Development Fig. 1: Supernova classification.

About 8 events thought to be
supernovae have been recorded as visible to the naked eye. One of the first
recorded by multiple cultures occurred in 1054, when a bright new "star" appeared
in the sky. The star was visible in daylight for 23 days before getting dimmer and
eventually disappearing entirely. A short-lived extraordinarily bright object in
1572 captured the imagination of Danish astronomer-to-be Tycho Brahe. In vain,
he attempted to measure its parallax. His inability to do so suggested that the object
was far away, an apparent violation of the then-hold Aristotlean notion that
everything outside the planets was static. A mere 32 years later, a similar event
occurred, this one studied heavily by Kepler (he also tried, in vain, to measure its
parallax). The supernova in 1604 is believed to be the last which occurred in the
Milky Way. [1]

The advent of telescopes led to further observations of "new stars", or novae. In

1885, a nova of apparent magnitude 6 was detected by chance in the Andromeda
galaxy. At the time, Andromeda was thought to be relatively nearby, so the
luminosity did not seem unreasonable. This changed, however, after Edwin
Hubble's successful detection of Andromedan Cepheid variables (Cepheids are
believed to have a consistent relationship between period and luminosity) and his
subsequent distance measurement. Wilhelm Baade and Fritz Zwicke, working at
Mt. Wilson, realized that the amount of energy necessary to produce such a large
luminosity at a distance of 2.5 million light years was immense, much higher than
previously observed novae. Their calculations yielded an energy release
comparable to the total internal energy of a star. They decided to call such
extremely energetic events "supernovae." The name stuck. [2]

Classification of Supernovae
Soon after Baade and Zwicke's "discovery" of supernovae, Baade and Rudolph
Minkowski (not to be confused with his more famous uncle, Hermann Minkowski)
began cataloguing them. Minkowski came up with a classification scheme based
on the spectra of supernovae. Supernovae that lacked hydrogen absorption lines
are Type I Supernovae while those with visible hydrogen absorption lines are Type
II. [3] Later on, further differentiation was made within the Type I category. Type
Ia supernovae have strong silicon absorption lines at a wavelength of 615 nm.
Type Ib Supernovae do not. Type Ic have no silicon and also no helium. Type Ia
are found everywhere in the universe and are of seemingly uniform luminosity and
light curves (to the extent that type Ia supernovas have been used as standard
candles to measure distance). Types Ib, Ic and II are found only in star-forming
regions, suggesting that they come from younger stars. Type II supernovas may be
further subdivided based on the shape of their light curves. [4]

While supernovae are easy to observe (they often outshine their parent galaxies),
coming up with an explanation for such an exorbitant release of energy has proven
more difficult. Before we discuss theories for the origin of supernovae, it is first
necessary to review some stellar physics.

Stellar Physics Primer

Stars are believed to form from
gravitational collapse. If the matter
density within a certain volume of
space is high enough, the material
will start clumping from gravitational
attraction. The gas will continue to
collapse until the pressure of the gas
is able to counteract the gravitational
force, i.e., the hydrostatic equilibrium
Fig. 2: Nuclear fusion in stars occurs at lower condition is met:
temperatures than one would expect if they
one knew only of classical physics. An
incoming proton need not exceed the peak
energy of Coulomb repulsion as it can tunnel
to the nuclear radius, where the Strong force
takes precedence. If the star has a mass greater than
0.08 solar masses, it will get hot
enough to start burning hydrogen. Classically, in order for fusion to occur, the
Coloumb barrier must be completely overcome (see Fig. 2), which would require
immense temperatures. However, quantum tunneling allows fusion to happen at
lower temperatures than classical mechanics would require. The predominant
process occurring in stars with low metallicity is the proton-proton chain

The first step of the proton-proton chain is the slowest and dictates the lifetime of
the hydrogen-burning epoch of a star. The temperature dependence of the reaction
rate is T4. Stars with high metallicity (to the astronomer, anything other than
hydrogen and helium is a metal) can undergo other, even more temperature
sensitive, processes that also convert hydrogen to helium (for example, the carbon-
nitrogen cycle has a reaction rate that goes as T18.) This means that more massive
stars are much more luminous and short-lived than less massive stars.

After a star's core runs out of hydrogen, the fusion stops and hydrostatic
equilibrium is broken. The star starts collapsing on itself, causing the core to get
hotter and hotter. If the star has a mass of at least 0.5 solar masses, the core will
eventually get hot enough that it will be able to burn helium. Helium fusion
follows the triple-α process:

Also the carbon can further burn into oxygen:

Eventually, the helium in the core will also expire. Again, the core will collapse. If
the mass of the star is less than 8 solar masses, it will never get hot enough to burn
the oxygen and carbon. It cannot, however, collapse indefinitely. Eventually
pressure from electron degeneracy will counteract the gravitational force and form
a compact white dwarf from the carbon-oxygen core. The outer portion of the star
is expelled in a planetary nebula. [4]

Catastrophic Core Collapse Proposal

If the mass of the star is greater than 8 solar masses, fusion will start up again,
creating Neon. After the Neon expires, another collapse ensues, until the Neon may
be fused into oxygen. The cycle of alternating core collapses followed by the
burning heavier and heavier elements continues for a while, until finally silicon
fuses to create iron (actually, nickel which eventually decays into iron). As iron
and nickel have the highest binding energy of any elements, fusion cannot proceed
past this point. At this point, the star has an onion-like elemental structure (see Fig.
3). The iron-nickel core is held up by electron degeneracy pressure from collapse.

However, as the iron-nickel core expands due to fusion of the surrounding silicon,
it may approach the Chandrasekhar mass (this is the maximal mass that an object
held up by electron degeneracy pressure can have before the gravitational force
becomes too strong; this limit may be calculated by using the equation of state of a
relativistic electron gas). When this limit is exceeded, the ensuing collapse
provides a possible mechanism for supernovae to occur.

The model for a core collapse supernova is as follows. The collapsing core reaches
very high temperatures and velocities, generating very high energy photons which
purportedly photodisintegrate the heavy atoms into their constituent nuclear matter.
It becomes energetically favorable for protons to undergo reverse beta decay (p +
e- → n + νe), thus releasing neutrinos during the collapse phase. Also, thermal
neutrinos are supposed to be generated.

With electron degeneracy out of the way, one might expect the matter to continue
to collapse indefinitely. However, once the matter becomes dense enough, it
becomes subject to neutron degeneracy pressure. Hydrostatic equilibrium is
abruptly restored in the nascent neutron core. As infalling material moving at
extremely high velocities hits this super-dense region, it is forced to stop very
quickly, creating an outwardly propagating shock wave. With some luck, the shock
wave might have enough energy to counteract the gravitational collapse and tear
apart the hapless star. [4]
Lacking the means to generate a
bonafide supernova, scientists have
turned to computer simulation to test
the model. After 30 years of ever-
more-sophisticated simulations of the
core collapse and shock wave, it is
believed that the shockwave is not
energetic enough and stalls in the
(former) outer core of the star.
Another energy source is needed to
complete the catastrophe. Some have
posited that this energy may come
from the neutrinos. If one percent of
the neutrinos were to couple with the
infalling material, then the shock
wave can be resuscitated and the star
properly exploded. How to get so Fig. 3: The structure of a massive star in its
many neutrinos to interact, however, last throes of life. The timescales are
is unclear. Simulations with attempts calculated for a star of 25 solar masses. [4]
at realistic neutrino transfer have not
been able to produce a proper (simulated) supernova (for example, see
Liebendorfer et al.) [5]

In 1987, type Ib supernova occurred in the (relatively) nearby Large Magellanic

Cloud (168,000 ly). About 20 neutrinos were claimed to have been observed
originating from the supernova at three different locations (Kamiokande in Japan,
Bakson in the USSR and Mt. Blanc) The fact that neutrinos were detected prior to
optical sighting of the supernova is often taking as evidence that the core collapse
model is more or less correct (neutrinos start to get emitted during the collapse; no
light is produced until after the elusive shock wave breaches the exterior of the
star). [6]

What about Type Ia?

Even if the core collapse supernova could be made to work, it could not fully
explain all supernovae by itself. Core collapse requires an extremely massive star,
which, due to reaction rates, necessarily die young. However, type Ia supernovas in
particular have been observed in parts of the universe far from star forming
regions. A massive star could not reach those areas before expiring.

In the 70's, Whelan and Iben came up with a possible explanation for type Ia
supernovas. Less massive stars that can survive for a long time can eventually form
white dwarves. Now, not all stars are solitary like our sun; over half of stars belong
to multi-star systems. If one star is more massive than another, it is reasonable that
at some point, one of the stars becomes a white dwarf while the other continues to
fuse. In that case, it is possible for the surviving star to begin accreting part of its
mass onto the white dwarf. As mass is gained by the white dwarf, its internal
temperature and pressure start growing. Upon approaching the Chandresekhar
limit, the white dwarf core's constituent matter becomes relativistic and the core's
equation of state changes such that the core can contract even more. [7]

It may get hot enough in the core so that the carbon-oxygen mixture can ignite,
causing a very energetic nuclear explosion. Rapid fusion of the dwarf follows,
culminating in silicon fusing to create 56Ni, which then decays into 56Co, and
finally 56Fe. The successful matching of white dwarf light curves to the half-lifes
of the nickel and cobalt isotopes involved lend credence to this model. Moreover,
the model explains the strong silicon absorption lines (from unfused silicon) and
the seemingly homogenous luminosity.

Unfortunately, computer models of white dwarfs are of mixed success. While

naive one-dimensional models have successfully yielded explosions, more
sophisticated multidimensional models such as the one employed by Gamezo et al.
are only able to produce an explosion an order of magnitude smaller than those
observed. The conflagration does not seem to spread quickly enough to ignite
enough of the star to spark something comparable to what has been observed. [8]

The supernova problem refers to the inability of computer simulations to produce a
supernova. The implication is that either there is something wrong with the
simulations or that there is something wrong with our understanding of