Discovery: Most-luminous ever supernova

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A team of astronomers, including Carnegie’s Benjamin Shappee, Nidia Morrell, and Ian Thompson, has discovered the most-luminous supernova ever observed, called ASAS-SN-15lh.

Pasadena, CA—A team of astronomers, including Carnegie’s Benjamin Shappee, Nidia Morrell, and Ian Thompson, has discovered the most-luminous supernova ever observed, called ASAS-SN-15lh. Their findings are published in Science.

Supernovae are violent stellar explosions and some of the brightest objects in the universe. Human records noting their existence date back nearly 2,000 years. Within the past two decades a rare new category of super-luminous supernovae have been discovered, which shine one hundred to a thousand times brighter than the more-common supernovae. It has been theorized that these super-luminous supernovae are powered by so-called magnetars, neutron stars with extremely powerful magnetic fields, with the magnetism providing the engine for the immense luminosity. According to this theory, the magnetic field’s spin magnifies the energy of the explosion, increasing the luminosity. 

As counterintuitive as it may sound, super-luminous supernovae are difficult for astronomers to spot. This is because they are rare and tend to form in low-luminosity galaxies with vigorous star formation, whereas the sky surveys that have been traditionally used to locate supernovae target bright galaxies with low rates of star formation.

The newly found super-luminous supernova was discovered by the All Sky Automated Survey for SuperNovae team (ASAS-SN), an international collaboration headquartered at the Ohio State University, which uses a network of 14-centimeter telescopes around the world to scan the visible sky every two or three nights looking for very bright supernovae. The only all-sky variability survey in existence, it is capable of finding normal supernovae out to about 350 million light years from Earth.

“On June 14 of this year, we spotted a newly occurring explosion in a galaxy of an unknown distance,” Shappee said. “Subsequent observations--including those made at our Las Campanas Observatory by Nidia Morrell and Ian Thompson--allowed the team to confirm the existence of the supernova ASAS-SN-15lh.”

The supernova’s spectra matched that of other hydrogen-poor super-luminous supernovae. But it wasn’t until further follow-up was conducted that the study’s lead author Subo Dong of the Kavli Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics (KIAA) at Peking University and the rest of the team realized how unusual the supernova is. It is two times more luminous than any supernova previously discovered. In fact, ASAS-SN-15lh at peak was almost 50 times more luminous than the entire Milky Way galaxy.

“When the first du Pont spectrum was available, as usual, I quickly checked what kind of supernova it was. To my surprise, I was not able to even tell for sure it was a supernova. My first reaction was: 'this is interesting, we should get more data,’” Morrell said. “It was only when we obtained higher resolution spectra from the Southern African Large Telescope and the Magellan Clay Telescope that I realized how distant the host galaxy is and consequently, how luminous the supernova.”

What’s more, they determined that the galaxy where ASAS-SN-15lh formed is very atypical for a super-luminous supernova, which raises questions about how these types of supernovae form. Its host galaxy isn’t the typical low-luminosity, star-forming galaxy where previous super-luminous supernovae have been spotted. ASAS-SN-15lh’s galaxy is, in fact, more luminous than our own Milky Way.

“The astounding amount of energy released by this supernova strains the magnetar-formation theory,” Shappee explained. “More work will be necessary to understand this extraordinary object’s power source and whether there are other similar supernovae out there in the universe.” 


Caption: Comparison between a false-color pre-explosion image from the Dark Energy Survey and false-color follow-up image from the LCOGT 1-m network, courtesy of Benjamin Shappee. A larger version is available here

(Top image caption: ASAS-SN Unit-2, called Cassius, courtesy of  Jon De Vera from Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope Network. A larger version is available here.)


The other co-authors are José Luis Prieto of Universidad Diego Portales and Millennium Institute of Astrophysics; S. W. Jha of Rutgers University; Kris Stanek, Tom Holoien, Chris Kochanek, Todd Thompson, Udit Basu, John Beacom, Jon Brown, A. Bianca Danilet, and Greg Simonian of Ohio State University; David Bersier of Liverpool John Moores University;  Joseph Brimacombe of Coral Towers Observatory;  Ping Chen of Peking University; E. Conseil of the Observatoire de Strasbourg; E. Falco of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysic;  D. Grupe of Morehead State University; S. Kiyota of the Variable Star Observers League in Japan (VSOLJ);  G. Masi of The Virtual Telescope Project; B. Nicholls of Mt. Vernon Observatory; F. Olivares and G. Pignata of Universidad Andres Bello and the Millennium Institute of Astrophysics; G. Pojmanski and D. M. Szczygiel of Warsaw University Astronomical Observatory; P. R. Woźniak of Los Alamos National Laboratory.

ASAS-SN is an international collaboration of astronomers from the Ohio State University, the Carnegie Observatories, Universidad Diego Portales, KIAA-PKU, Warsaw University Observatory, Coral Towers Observatory, LJMU, KIAA-PKU, CfA, and LANL.

The team acknowledges support from LCOGT, NSF, OSU CCAPP, Mt. Cuba Astronomical Foundation, TAP, ESO, SAO, LCO, a CAS grant, a NASA Hubble Fellowship, a FONDECYT grant. MAS, an NSF CAREER award, DOE, and the LANL Laboratory Directed Research and Development program.