Star Material Could Be Building Block Of Life

An organic molecule detected in the material from which a star forms could shed light on how life emerged on Earth, according to new research led by Queen Mary University of London.

The researchers report the first ever detection of glycolonitrile (HOCH2CN), a pre-biotic molecule which existed before the emergence of life, in a solar-type protostar known as IRAS16293-2422 B.

This warm and dense region contains young stars at the earliest stage of their evolution surrounded by a cocoon of dust and gas — similar conditions to those when our Solar System formed.

Detecting pre-biotic molecules in solar-type protostars enhances our understanding of how the solar system formed as it indicates that planets created around the star could begin their existence with a supply of the chemical ingredients needed to make some form of life.

This finding, published in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society: Letters, is a significant step forward for pre-biotic astrochemistry since glycolonitrile is recognised as a key precursor towards the formation of adenine, one of the nucleobases that form both DNA and RNA in living organisms.

IRAS16293-2422 B is a well-studied protostar in the constellation of Ophiuchus, in a region of star formation known as rho Ophiuchi, about 450 light-years from Earth.

The research was also carried out with the Centro de Astrobiología in Spain, INAF-Osservatorio Astrofisico di Arcetri in Italy, the European Southern Observatory, and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in the USA.

Lead author Shaoshan Zeng, from Queen Mary University of London, said: “We have shown that this important pre-biotic molecule can be formed in the material from which stars and planets emerge, taking us a step closer to identifying the processes that may have led to the origin of life on Earth.”

The researchers used data from the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimetre Array (ALMA) telescope in Chile to uncover evidence for the presence of glycolonitrile in the material from which the star is forming — known as the interstellar medium.

With the ALMA data, they were able to identify the chemical signatures of glycolonitrile and determine the conditions in which the molecule was found. They also followed this up by using chemical modelling to reproduce the observed data which allowed them to investigate the chemical processes that could help to understand the origin of this molecule.

This follows the earlier detection of methyl isocyanate in the same object by researchers from Queen Mary. Methyl isocyanate is what is known as an isomer of glycolonitrile — it is made up of the same atoms but in a slightly different arrangement, meaning it has different chemical properties.

The research was partially funded by Queen Mary University of London and the UK Science and Technology Facilities Council.

Birth Of Massive Black Holes In The Early Universe

The light released from around the first massive black holes in the universe is so intense that it is able to reach telescopes across the entire expanse of the universe. Incredibly, the light from the most distant black holes (or quasars) has been traveling to us for more than 13 billion light years. However, we do not know how these monster black holes formed.

New research led by researchers from Georgia Institute of Technology, Dublin City University, Michigan State University, the University of California at San Diego, the San Diego Supercomputer Center and IBM, provides a new and extremely promising avenue for solving this cosmic riddle. The team showed that when galaxies assemble extremely rapidly — and sometimes violently — that can lead to the formation of very massive black holes. In these rare galaxies, normal star formation is disrupted and black hole formation takes over.

The new study finds that massive black holes form in dense starless regions that are growing rapidly, turning upside down the long-accepted belief that massive black hole formation was limited to regions bombarded by the powerful radiation of nearby galaxies. Conclusions of the study, reported on January 23rd in the journal Nature and supported by funding from the National Science Foundation, the European Union and NASA, also finds that massive black holes are much more common in the universe than previously thought.

The key criteria for determining where massive black holes formed during the universe’s infancy relates to the rapid growth of pre-galactic gas clouds that are the forerunners of all present-day galaxies, meaning that most supermassive black holes have a common origin forming in this newly discovered scenario, said John Wise, an associate professor in the Center for Relativistic Astrophysics at Georgia Tech and the paper’s corresponding author. Dark matter collapses into halos that are the gravitational glue for all galaxies. Early rapid growth of these halos prevented the formation of stars that would have competed with black holes for gaseous matter flowing into the area.

“In this study, we have uncovered a totally new mechanism that sparks the formation of massive black holes in particular dark matter halos,” Wise said. “Instead of just considering radiation, we need to look at how quickly the halos grow. We don’t need that much physics to understand it — just how the dark matter is distributed and how gravity will affect that. Forming a massive black hole requires being in a rare region with an intense convergence of matter.”

When the research team found these black hole formation sites in the simulation, they were at first stumped, said John Regan, research fellow in the Centre for Astrophysics and Relativity in Dublin City University. The previously accepted paradigm was that massive black holes could only form when exposed to high levels of nearby radiation.

“Previous theories suggested this should only happen when the sites were exposed to high levels of star-formation killing radiation,” he said. “As we delved deeper, we saw that these sites were undergoing a period of extremely rapid growth. That was the key. The violent and turbulent nature of the rapid assembly, the violent crashing together of the galaxy’s foundations during the galaxy’s birth prevented normal star formation and led to perfect conditions for black hole formation instead. This research shifts the previous paradigm and opens up a whole new area of research.”

The earlier theory relied on intense ultraviolet radiation from a nearby galaxy to inhibit the formation of stars in the black hole-forming halo, said Michael Norman, director of the San Diego Supercomputer Center at UC San Diego and one of the work’s authors. “While UV radiation is still a factor, our work has shown that it is not the dominant factor, at least in our simulations,” he explained.

The research was based on the Renaissance Simulation suite, a 70-terabyte data set created on the Blue Waters supercomputer between 2011 and 2014 to help scientists understand how the universe evolved during its early years. To learn more about specific regions where massive black holes were likely to develop, the researchers examined the simulation data and found ten specific dark matter halos that should have formed stars given their masses but only contained a dense gas cloud. Using the Stampede2 supercomputer, they then re-simulated two of those halos — each about 2,400 light-years across — at much higher resolution to understand details of what was happening in them 270 million years after the Big Bang.

“It was only in these overly-dense regions of the universe that we saw these black holes forming,” Wise said. “The dark matter creates most of the gravity, and then the gas falls into that gravitational potential, where it can form stars or a massive black hole.”

The Renaissance Simulations are the most comprehensive simulations of the earliest stages of the gravitational assembly of the pristine gas composed of hydrogen and helium and cold dark matter leading to the formation of the first stars and galaxies. They use a technique known as adaptive mesh refinement to zoom in on dense clumps forming stars or black holes. In addition, they cover a large enough region of the early universe to form thousands of objects — a requirement if one is interested in rare objects, as is the case here. “The high resolution, rich physics and large sample of collapsing halos were all needed to achieve this result,” said Norman.

The improved resolution of the simulation done for two candidate regions allowed the scientists to see turbulence and the inflow of gas and clumps of matter forming as the black hole precursors began to condense and spin. Their growth rate was dramatic.

“Astronomers observe supermassive black holes that have grown to a billion solar masses in 800 million years,” Wise said. “Doing that required an intense convergence of mass in that region. You would expect that in regions where galaxies were forming at very early times.”

Another aspect of the research is that the halos that give birth to black holes may be more common than previously believed.

“An exciting component of this work is the discovery that these types of halos, though rare, may be common enough,” said Brian O’Shea, a professor at Michigan State University. “We predict that this scenario would happen enough to be the origin of the most massive black holes that are observed, both early in the universe and in galaxies at the present day.”

Future work with these simulations will look at the lifecycle of these massive black hole formation galaxies, studying the formation, growth and evolution of the first massive black holes across time. “Our next goal is to probe the further evolution of these exotic objects. Where are these black holes today? Can we detect evidence of them in the local universe or with gravitational waves?” Regan asked.

For these new answers, the research team — and others — may return to the simulations.

“The Renaissance Simulations are sufficiently rich that other discoveries can be made using data already computed,” said Norman. “For this reason we have created a public archive at SDSC containing called the Renaissance Simulations Laboratory where others can pursue questions of their own.”

New Way Supermassive Black Holes Are ‘Fed’

Supermassive black holes weigh millions to billions times more than our sun and lie at the center of most galaxies. A supermassive black hole several million times the mass of the sun is situated in the heart of our very own Milky Way.

Despite how commonplace supermassive black holes are, it remains unclear how they grow to such enormous proportions. Some black holes constantly swallow gas in their surroundings, some suddenly swallow whole stars. But neither theory independently explains how supermassive black holes can “switch on” so unexpectedly and keep growing so fast for a long period.

A new Tel Aviv University-led study published today in Nature Astronomy finds that some supermassive black holes are triggered to grow, suddenly devouring a large amount of gas in their surroundings.

In February 2017, the All Sky Automated Survey for Supernovae discovered an event known as AT 2017bgt. This event was initially believed to be a “star swallowing” event, or a “tidal disruption” event, because the radiation emitted around the black hole grew more than 50 times brighter than what had been observed in 2004.

However, after extensive observations using a multitude of telescopes, a team of researchers led by Dr. Benny Trakhtenbrot and Dr. Iair Arcavi, both of TAU’s Raymond & Beverly Sackler School of Physics and Astronomy, concluded that AT 2017bgt represented a new way of “feeding” black holes.

“The sudden brightening of AT 2017bgt was reminiscent of a tidal disruption event,” says Dr. Trakhtenbrot. “But we quickly realized that this time there was something unusual. The first clue was an additional component of light, which had never been seen in tidal disruption events.”

Dr. Arcavi, who led the data collection, adds, “We followed this event for more than a year with telescopes on Earth and in space, and what we saw did not match anything we had seen before.”

The observations matched the theoretical predictions of another member of the research team, Prof. Hagai Netzer, also of Tel Aviv University.

“We had predicted back in the 1980s that a black hole swallowing gas from its surroundings could produce the elements of light seen here,” says Prof. Netzer. “This new result is the first time the process was seen in practice.”

Astronomers from the U.S., Chile, Poland and the U.K. took part in the observations and analysis effort, which used three different space telescopes, including the new NICER telescope installed on board the International Space Station.

One of the ultraviolet images obtained during the data acquisition frenzy turned out to be the millionth image taken by the Neil Gehrels Swift Observatory — an event celebrated by NASA, which operates this space mission.

The research team identified two additional recently reported events of black holes “switched on,” which share the same emission properties as AT 2017bgt. These three events form a new and tantalizing class of black hole re-activation.

“We are not yet sure about the cause of this dramatic and sudden enhancement in the black holes’ feeding rate,” concludes Dr. Trakhtenbrot. “There are many known ways to speed up the growth of giant black holes, but they typically happen during much longer timescales.”

“We hope to detect many more such events, and to follow them with several telescopes working in tandem,” says Dr. Arcavi. “This is the only way to complete our picture of black hole growth, to understand what speeds it up, and perhaps finally solve the mystery of how these giant monsters form.”

The Orderly Chaos Of Black Holes

During the formation of a black hole a bright burst of very energetic light in the form of gamma-rays is produced, these events are called gamma-ray bursts. The physics behind this phenomenon includes many of the least understood fields within physics today: general gravity, extreme temperatures and acceleration of particles far beyond the energy of the most powerful particle accelerators on Earth. In order to analyse these gamma-ray bursts, researchers from the University of Geneva (UNIGE), in collaboration with the Paul Scherrer Institute (PSI) of Villigen, Switzerland, the Institute of High Energy Physics in Beijing and the National Center for Nuclear Research of Swierk in Poland, have built the POLAR instrument, sent in 2016 to the Chinese Tiangong-2 space laboratory, to analyze gamma-ray bursts. Contrary to the theories developed, the first results of POLAR reveal that the high energy photons coming from gamma-ray bursts are neither completely chaotic, nor completely organized, but a mixture of the two: within short time slices, the photons are found to oscillate in the same direction, but the oscillation direction changes with time. These unexpected results are reported in a recent issue of the journal Nature Astronomy.

When two neutron stars collide or a super massive star collapses into itself, a black hole is created. This birth is accompanied by a bright burst of gamma-rays — very energetic light such as that emitted by radioactive sources — called a gamma-ray burst (GRB).

Is black hole birth environment organized or chaotic?

How and where the gamma-rays are produced is still a mystery, two different schools of thought on their origin exist. The first predicts that photons from GRBs are polarized, meaning the majority of them oscillate in the same direction. If this were the case, the source of the photons would likely be a strong and well organized magnetic field formed during the violent aftermath of the black hole production. A second theory suggests that the photons are not polarized, implying a more chaotic emission environment. But how to check this?

“Our international teams have built together the first powerful and dedicated detector, called POLAR, capable of measuring the polarization of gamma-rays from GRBs. This instrument allows us to learn more about their source,” said Xin Wu, professor in the Department of Nuclear and Particle Physics of the Faculty of Sciences of UNIGE. Its operating system is rather simple. It is a square of 50×50 cm2 consisting of 1600 scintillator bars in which the gamma-rays collide with the atoms that make up these bars. When a photon collides in a bar we can measure it, afterwards it can produce a second photon which can cause a second visible collision. “If the photons are polarized, we observe a directional dependency between the impact positions of the photons, continues Nicolas Produit, researcher at the Department of Astronomy of the Faculty of Sciences of UNIGE. On the contrary, if there is no polarization, the second photon resulting from the first collision will leave in a fully random direction.”

Order within chaos

In six months, POLAR has detected 55 gamma-ray bursts and scientist analyzed the polarization of gamma-rays from the 5 brightest ones. The results are surprising to say the least. “When we analyse the polarization of a gamma-ray burst as a whole, we see at most a very weak polarization, which seems to clearly favour several theories,” says Merlin Kole, a researcher at the Department of Nuclear and Particle Physics of the Faculty of Sciences of UNIGE and one of the main authors of the paper. Faced with this first result, the scientists looked in more detail at a very powerful 9 second long gamma-ray burst and cut it into time slices, each of 2 seconds long. “There, we discovered with surprise that, on the contrary, the photons are polarized in each slice, but the oscillation direction is different in each slice!,” Xin Wu enthuses. It is this changing direction which makes the full GRB appear as very chaotic and unpolarized. “The results show that as the explosion takes place, something happens which causes the photons to be emitted with a different polarization direction, what this could be we really don’t know,” continues Merlin Kole.

These first results confront the theorists with new elements and requires them to produce more detailed predictions. “We now want to build POLAR-2, which is bigger and more precise. With that we can dig deeper into these chaotic processes, to finally discover the source of the gamma-rays and unravel the mysteries of these highly energetic physical processes,” explains Nicolas Produit.

Giant Pattern Discovered In The Clouds Of Planet Venus

A Japanese research group has identified a giant streak structure among the clouds covering planet Venus based on observation from the spacecraft Akatsuki. The team also revealed the origins of this structure using large-scale climate simulations. The group was led by Project Assistant Professor Hiroki Kashimura (Kobe University, Graduate School of Science) and these findings were published on January 9 in Nature Communications.

Venus is often called Earth’s twin because of their similar size and gravity, but the climate on Venus is very different. Venus rotates in the opposite direction to Earth, and a lot more slowly (about one rotation for 243 Earth days). Meanwhile, about 60 km above Venus’ surface a speedy east wind circles the planet in about 4 Earth days (at 360 km/h), a phenomenon known as atmospheric superrotation.

The sky of Venus is fully covered by thick clouds of sulfuric acid that are located at a height of 45-70 km, making it hard to observe the planet’s surface from Earth-based telescopes and orbiters circling Venus. Surface temperatures reach a scorching 460 degrees Celsius, a harsh environment for any observations by entry probes. Due to these conditions, there are still many unknowns regarding Venus’ atmospheric phenomena.

To solve the puzzle of Venus’ atmosphere, the Japanese spacecraft Akatsuki began its orbit of Venus in December 2015. One of the observational instruments of Akatsuki is an infrared camera “IR2” that measures wavelengths of 2 ?m (0.002 mm). This camera can capture detailed cloud morphology of the lower cloud levels, about 50 km from the surface. Optical and ultraviolet rays are blocked by the upper cloud layers, but thanks to infrared technology, dynamic structures of the lower clouds are gradually being revealed.

Before the Akatsuki mission began, the research team developed a program called AFES-Venus for calculating simulations of Venus’ atmosphere. On Earth, atmospheric phenomena on every scale are researched and predicted using numerical simulations, from the daily weather forecast and typhoon reports to anticipated climate change arising from global warming. For Venus, the difficulty of observation makes numerical simulations even more important, but this same issue also makes it hard to confirm the accuracy of the simulations.

AFES-Venus had already succeeded in reproducing superrotational winds and polar temperature structures of the Venus atmosphere. Using the Earth Simulator, a supercomputer system provided by the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology (JAMSTEC), the research team created numerical simulations at a high spatial resolution. However, because of the low quality of observational data before Akatsuki, it was hard to prove whether these simulations were accurate reconstructions.

This study compared detailed observational data of the lower cloud levels of Venus taken by Akatsuki’s IR2 camera with the high-resolution simulations from the AFES-Venus program. The left part of the image above shows the lower cloud levels of Venus captured by the IR2 camera. Note the almost symmetrical giant streaks across the northern and southern hemispheres. Each streak is hundreds of kilometers wide and stretches diagonally almost 10,000 kilometers across. This pattern was revealed for the first time by the IR2 camera, and the team have named it a planetary-scale streak structure. This scale of streak structure has never been observed on Earth, and could be a phenomenon unique to Venus. Using the AFES-Venus high-resolution simulations, the team reconstructed the pattern (right-hand side of above image). The similarity between this structure and the camera observations prove the accuracy of the AFES-Venus simulations.

Next, through detailed analyses of the AFES-Venus simulation results, the team revealed the origin of this giant streak structure. The key to this structure is a phenomenon closely connected to Earth’s everyday weather: polar jet streams. In mid and high latitudes of Earth, a large-scale dynamics of winds (baroclinic instability) forms extratropical cyclones, migratory high-pressure systems, and polar jet streams. The results of the simulations showed the same mechanism at work in the cloud layers of Venus, suggesting that jet streams may be formed at high latitudes. At lower latitudes, an atmospheric wave due to the distribution of large-scale flows and the planetary rotation effect (Rossby wave) generates large vortexes across the equator to latitudes of 60 degrees in both directions. When jet streams are added to this phenomenon, the vortexes tilt and stretch, and the convergence zone between the north and south winds forms as a streak. The north-south wind that is pushed out by the convergence zone becomes a strong downward flow, resulting in the planetary-scale streak structure. The Rossby wave also combines with a large atmospheric fluctuation located over the equator (equatorial Kelvin wave) in the lower cloud levels, preserving the symmetry between hemispheres.

This study revealed the giant streak structure on the planetary scale in the lower cloud levels of Venus, replicated this structure with simulations, and suggested that this streak structure is formed from two types of atmospheric fluctuations (waves), baroclinic instability and jet streams. The successful simulation of the planetary-scale streak structure formed from multiple atmospheric phenomena is evidence for the accuracy of the simulations for individual phenomena calculated in this process.

Until now, studies of Venus’ climate have mainly focused on average calculations from east to west. This finding has raised the study of Venus’ climate to a new level in which discussion of the detailed three-dimensional structure of Venus is possible. The next step, through collaboration with Akatsuki and AFES-Venus, is to solve the puzzle of the climate of Earth’s twin Venus, veiled in the thick cloud of sulfuric acid.

First Evidence Of Gigantic Remains From Star Explosions

Astrophysicists have found the first ever evidence of gigantic remains being formed from repeated explosions on the surface of a dead star in the Andromeda Galaxy, 2.5 million light years from Earth. The remains or “super-remnant” measures almost 400 light years across. For comparison, it takes just 8 minutes for light from the Sun to reach us.

A white dwarf is the dead core of a star. When it is paired with a companion star in a binary system, it can potentially produce a nova explosion. If the conditions are right, the white dwarf can pull gas from its companion star and when enough material builds up on the surface of the white dwarf, it triggers a thermonuclear explosion or “nova,” shining a million times brighter than our Sun and initially moving at up to 10,000 km per second.

Astrophysicists including Dr Steven Williams from Lancaster University in the UK examined the nova M31N 2008-12a in the Andromeda Galaxy, one of our nearest neighbours.

They used Hubble Space Telescope imaging, accompanied by spectroscopy from telescopes on Earth, to help uncover the nature of a gigantic super-remnant surrounding the nova. This is the first time such a huge remnant has been associated with a nova, and their research appears in Nature.

Dr Williams worked on Liverpool Telescope observations of the nova as well as helping to interpret the results.

He said: “This result is significant, as it is the first such remnant that has been found around a nova. This nova also has the most frequent explosions of any we know — once a year. The most frequent in our own Galaxy in only once every 10 years.

“It also has potential links to Type Ia supernovae, as this is how we would expect a nova system to behave when it is nearly massive enough to explode as a supernova.”

A Type Ia supernova is caused when the entire white dwarf is blown apart when it reaches a critical upper mass, rather than an explosion on its surface as in the case of the nova in this work. Type Ia supernovae are relatively rare. We have not observed one in our own Galaxy since Kepler’s supernova of 1604, named after the famous astronomer Johannes Kepler, who observed it shortly after it exploded and for the following year.

The team simulated how such a nova can create a vast, evacuated cavity around the star, by continually sweeping up the surrounding medium within a shell at the edge of a growing super-remnant.

The models show that the super-remnant — larger than almost all known remnants of supernova explosions — is consistent with being built up by frequent nova eruptions over millions of years.

Dr Matt Darnley from Liverpool John Moores University in the UK, who led the work, said: “Studying M31N 2008-12a and its super-remnant could help us to understand how some white dwarfs grow to their critical upper mass and how they actually explode as a Type Ia Supernova once they get there. Type Ia supernovae are critical tools used to work out how the universe expands and grows.”

Astronomers Find Signatures Of A ‘Messy’ Star That Made Its Companion Go Supernova

Many stars explode as luminous supernovae when, swollen with age, they run out of fuel for nuclear fusion. But some stars can go supernova simply because they have a close and pesky companion star that, one day, perturbs its partner so much that it explodes.

These latter events can happen in binary star systems, where two stars attempt to share dominion. While the exploding star gives off lots of evidence about its identity, astronomers must engage in detective work to learn about the errant companion that triggered the explosion.

On Jan. 10 at the 2019 American Astronomical Society meeting in Seattle, an international team of astronomers announced that they have identified the type of companion star that made its partner in a binary system, a carbon-oxygen white dwarf star, explode. Through repeated observations of SN 2015cp, a supernova 545 million light years away, the team detected hydrogen-rich debris that the companion star had shed prior to the explosion.

“The presence of debris means that the companion was either a red giant star or similar star that, prior to making its companion go supernova, had shed large amounts of material,” said University of Washington astronomer Melissa Graham, who presented the discovery and is lead author on the accompanying paper accepted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal.

The supernova material smacked into this stellar litter at 10 percent the speed of light, causing it to glow with ultraviolet light that was detected by the Hubble Space Telescope and other observatories nearly two years after the initial explosion. By looking for evidence of debris impacts months or years after a supernova in a binary star system, the team believes that astronomers could determine whether the companion had been a messy red giant or a relatively neat and tidy star.

The team made this discovery as part of a wider study of a particular type of supernova known as a Type Ia supernova. These occur when a carbon-oxygen white dwarf star explodes suddenly due to activity of a binary companion. Carbon-oxygen white dwarfs are small, dense and — for stars — quite stable. They form from the collapsed cores of larger stars and, if left undisturbed, can persist for billions of years.

Type Ia supernovae have been used for cosmological studies because their consistent luminosity makes them ideal “cosmic lighthouses,” according to Graham. They’ve been used to estimate the expansion rate of the universe and served as indirect evidence for the existence of dark energy.

Yet scientists are not certain what kinds of companion stars could trigger a Type Ia event. Plenty of evidence indicates that, for most Type Ia supernovae, the companion was likely another carbon-oxygen white dwarf, which would leave no hydrogen-rich debris in the aftermath. Yet theoretical models have shown that stars like red giants could also trigger a Type Ia supernova, which could leave hydrogen-rich debris that would be hit by the explosion. Out of the thousands of Type Ia supernovae studied to date, only a small fraction were later observed impacting hydrogen-rich material shed by a companion star. Prior observations of at least two Type Ia supernovae detected glowing debris months after the explosion. But scientists weren’t sure if those events were isolated occurrences, or signs that Type Ia supernovae could have many different kinds of companion stars.

“All of the science to date that has been done using Type Ia supernovae, including research on dark energy and the expansion of the universe, rests on the assumption that we know reasonably well what these ‘cosmic lighthouses’ are and how they work,” said Graham. “It is very important to understand how these events are triggered, and whether only a subset of Type Ia events should be used for certain cosmology studies.”

The team used Hubble Space Telescope observations to look for ultraviolet emissions from 70 Type Ia supernovae approximately one to three years following the initial explosion.

“By looking years after the initial event, we were searching for signs of shocked material that contained hydrogen, which would indicate that the companion was something other than another carbon-oxygen white dwarf,” said Graham.

In the case of SN 2015cp, a supernova first detected in 2015, the scientists found what they were searching for. In 2017, 686 days after the supernova exploded, Hubble picked up an ultraviolet glow of debris. This debris was far from the supernova source — at least 100 billion kilometers, or 62 billion miles, away. For reference, Pluto’s orbit takes it a maximum of 7.4 billion kilometers from our sun.

By comparing SN 2015cp to the other Type Ia supernovae in their survey, the researchers estimate that no more than 6 percent of Type Ia supernovae have such a litterbug companion. Repeated, detailed observations of other Type Ia events would help cement these estimates, Graham said.

The Hubble Space Telescope was essential for detecting the ultraviolet signature of the companion star’s debris for SN 2015cp. In the fall of 2017, the researchers arranged for additional observations of SN 2015cp by the W.M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii, the Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array in New Mexico, the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope and NASA’s Neil Gehrels Swift Observatory, among others. These data proved crucial in confirming the presence of hydrogen and are presented in a companion paper lead by Chelsea Harris, a research associate at Michigan State University.

“The discovery and follow-up of SN 2015cp’s emission really demonstrates how it takes many astronomers, and a wide variety of types of telescopes, working together to understand transient cosmic phenomena,” said Graham. “It is also a perfect example of the role of serendipity in astronomical studies: If Hubble had looked at SN 2015cp just a month or two later, we wouldn’t have seen anything.”

Graham is also a senior fellow with the UW’s DIRAC Institute and a science analyst with the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, or LSST.

“In the future, as a part of its regularly scheduled observations, the LSST will automatically detect optical emissions similar to SN 2015cp — from hydrogen impacted by material from Type Ia supernovae,” said Graham said. “It’s going to make my job so much easier!”