Brightest-ever supernova discovered

A supernova at least twice as bright and energetic, and likely much more massive than any yet recorded has been identified by an international team of astronomers, led by the University of Birmingham.

Artist rendition of the event.
Image by Aaron Geller (Northwestern University)

The team, which included experts from HarvardNorthwestern University and Ohio University, believe the supernova, dubbed SN2016aps, could be an example of an extremely rare ‘pulsational pair-instability’ supernova, possibly formed from two massive stars that merged before the explosion. Their findings are published today in Nature Astronomy.

Such an event so far only exists in theory and has never been confirmed through astronomical observations.

Dr Matt Nicholl, of the School of Physics and Astronomy and the Institute of Gravitational Wave Astronomy at the University of Birmingham, is lead author of the study. He explains: “We can measure supernovae using two scales – the total energy of the explosion, and the amount of that energy that is emitted as observable light, or radiation.

“In a typical supernova, the radiation is less than 1 per cent of the total energy. But in SN2016aps, we found the radiation was five times the explosion energy of a normal-sized supernova. This is the most light we have ever seen emitted by a supernova.”

In order to become this bright, the explosion must have been much more energetic than usual. By examining the light spectrum, the team were able to show that the explosion was powered by a collision between the supernova and a massive shell of gas, shed by the star in the years before it exploded.

“While many supernovae are discovered every night, most are in massive galaxies,” said Dr Peter Blanchard, from Northwestern University and a co-author on the study. “This one immediately stood out for further observations because it seemed to be in the middle of nowhere. We weren’t able to see the galaxy where this star was born until after the supernova light had faded.”

The team observed the explosion for two years, until it faded to 1 per cent of its peak brightness. Using these measurements, they calculated the mass of the supernova was between 50 to 100 times greater than our sun (solar masses). Typically supernovae have masses of between 8 and 15 solar masses.

“Stars with extremely large mass undergo violent pulsations before they die, shaking off a giant gas shell. This can be powered by a process called the pair instability, which has been a topic of speculation for physicists for the last 50 years,” says Dr Nicholl. “If the supernova gets the timing right, it can catch up to this shell and release a huge amount of energy in the collision. We think this is one of the most compelling candidates for this process yet observed, and probably the most massive.”

“SN2016aps also contained another puzzle,” added Dr Nicholl. “The gas we detected was mostly hydrogen – but such a massive star would usually have lost all of its hydrogen via stellar winds long before it started pulsating. One explanation is that two slightly less massive stars of around, say 60 solar masses, had merged before the explosion. The lower mass stars hold onto their hydrogen for longer, while their combined mass is high enough to trigger the pair instability.”

“Finding this extraordinary supernova couldn’t have come at a better time,” according to Professor Edo Berger, a co-author from Harvard University. “Now that we know such energetic explosions occur in nature, NASA’s new James Webb Space Telescope will be able to see similar events so far away that we can look back in time to the deaths of the very first stars in the Universe.”

Supernova 2016aps was first detected in data from the Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System (Pan-STARRS), a large-scale astronomical survey programme. The team also used data from the Hubble Space Telescope, the Keck and Gemini Observatories, in Hawaii, and the MDM and MMT Observatories in Arizona. Other collaborating institutions included Stockholm UniversityCopenhagen UniversityCalifornia Institute of Technology, and Space Telescope Science Institute.

The research was funded through a Royal Astronomical Society Research Fellowship, along with grants from the National Science FoundationNASA and the Horizon 2020 European Union Framework.

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April 15, 2020 10:57 am

This team of experts appear to have more imagination than data.

Reply to  Jim
April 15, 2020 1:04 pm

Astronomy and cosmology seems to be descending into the pit of speculative hypothesis in which climatology has so long dwelt.

BTW I love the “Artist rendition of the event.” An artist’s impression of something so bright we did not even think it was possible. Wow, that must be a pretty hard concept to pass in a drawing , right?

I mean, is it safe to look at that bit in the middle with naked eye, or should I get my welding googles?

Bill Taylor
April 15, 2020 12:32 pm

we have seen every supernova in the universe?

Reply to  Bill Taylor
April 15, 2020 2:58 pm

No. Super Novas don’t last that long. link I would guess that humanity has missed most of the Super Novas that ever happened.

Bill Taylor
Reply to  commieBob
April 15, 2020 3:22 pm

and that confirms my point, we CANT make the claim they made and what they are doing is NOT science in any way.

Mark - Helsinki
Reply to  commieBob
April 15, 2020 3:33 pm

We dont even really know if Supernovas are more than imagination.

These latest results do not actually confirm any “explosion” too place at all, nor any other claimed SN

Curious George
Reply to  Bill Taylor
April 15, 2020 4:02 pm

We have seen no future supernovas yet.

J Mac
April 15, 2020 12:34 pm

“This little light of mine,
I’m going to let it shine….”

Another opportunity to ‘learn stuff’! That’s what we homo sapiens do… add tidbits of knowledge to the ever expanding tribal knowledge base, and then advance our tool making skill sets using that knowledge to sail over the next horizon! And I think to myself “What A Wonderful World!” Thanks Satchmo!

Reply to  J Mac
April 15, 2020 2:01 pm

Ey up, if you’ve extricated yourself from man-made climate dryer lint, I’ll tell you something about Satchmo, and it’s all good.

Are you in England?

J Mac
Reply to  philincalifornia
April 15, 2020 9:01 pm

No – I’m in the Seattle area. How ’bout you? You around Sacramento?
I’ve been a ‘Pops’ fan since I was a teenager in WI, back in the late 60s and early 70s. He had many stage quips but my favorite was “Must be jelly ’cause jam don’t shake like that!” Glen Miller earlier had a song by that name but it has the same meaning across time!

James Walter
April 15, 2020 2:19 pm

I am a “believer”, that is the facts that they present make much more sense than the “consensus”, in the Electric Universe, that the standard cosmological model violates the 2nd Law of Thermo, that the “consensus” about the formation of suns violates the 2nd law, that “singularities” are impossible and really an admission that the model/math fail. At any rate, check out
Best article about “Supernovas, Neutron Stars and Black Holes Break The Rules”
Supernova’s are not what they say they are. “”Supernova “Too Bright” For Standard Theory | Space News”
The channel has many good videos, but they go off the reservation when they try to relate astronomers from 5000 years ago with their model. Einstein and Newton believed in a male god. Didn’t make them wrong about other things, though Einstein is not as sacro sant as people believe. “His” equations were stolen from Lorentz.

Richard (the cynical one)
Reply to  James Walter
April 15, 2020 3:58 pm


Curious George
Reply to  James Walter
April 15, 2020 4:08 pm

That’s why they are called Lorentz transformation.

homer d
April 15, 2020 3:59 pm

look at the video starting at 1:50 minute mark

Curious George
April 15, 2020 4:05 pm

A 2016 supernova discovered in 2020.

Actually it took that long to select the most likely hypothesis.

Tom Abbott
April 15, 2020 4:21 pm

What a wonderful world! It has more telescopes than I can name. A *lot* more telescopes than I can name. An abundance of riches I couldn’t have imagined having when I was a kid looking at fuzzy pictures of the Milky Way’s center in a science magazine taken by the 200-inch Palomar telescope, and straining to see the picture just a little better, wishing it was clearer. Now there are much better pictures to look at, although I still always seem to strain to see them a little clearer. And we’ll have even better pictures and data in the future. Ain’t life grand!

If you like astronomy and space development and discovery, now is your time.

Sweet Old Bob
April 15, 2020 5:36 pm

“Stars with extremely large mass undergo violent pulsations before they die, shaking off a giant gas shell. This can be powered by a process called the pair instability, which has been a topic of speculation for physicists for the last 50 years,” says Dr Nicholl. “If the supernova gets the timing right, it can catch up to this shell and release a huge amount of energy in the collision.”
This “shell” expands in all directions from the star ?
So how does the shell recombine to make a dense enough body that it can “collide” with the star ?
Nonsense meter pegged at 11.

Bill Parsons
April 15, 2020 5:37 pm

“Such an event so far only exists in theory and has never been confirmed through astronomical observations.”

Though there is a theory that said event may transpire in known time frames after the consumption of (more than the safe daily allowance ** of leguminous substances) … leaving certain trace elements in concentric waves propagating outward from a single unidentified source.

** Said to be 239.

April 15, 2020 10:28 pm

I saw the reference to NASA’s new James Webb Space Telescope. Wasn’t that supposed to have launched a couple years ago? Anyone know where it is at now?

Reply to  Brad-DXT
April 16, 2020 9:42 am

Webb should launch in 2021. Maybe. They did recently successfully deploy the mirror.

April 15, 2020 10:40 pm

I thought super novas happened when the star had burned all its Hydrogen. Yet they claim this one had a lot of H. Puzzle???

April 15, 2020 10:47 pm

This is what happens when you release too much CO2 into the atmosphere.

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