An otherwise nondescript binary star system in the Whirlpool Galaxy has brought astronomers tantalizingly close to their goal of observing a star just before it goes supernova. The study, submitted in a paper to the Astrophysical Journal, provides the latest result from an Ohio State University galaxy survey underway with the Large Binocular Telescope, located in Arizona.
In the first survey of its kind, the researchers have been scanning 25 nearby galaxies for stars that brighten and dim in unusual ways, in order to catch a few that are about to meet their end. In the three years since the study began, this particular unnamed binary system in the Whirlpool Galaxy was the first among the stars they’ve cataloged to produce a supernova. The astronomers were trying to find out if there are patterns of brightening or dimming that herald the end of a star’s life. Instead, they saw one star in this binary system dim noticeably before the other one exploded in a supernova during the summer of 2011. Though they’re still sorting through the data, it’s likely that they didn’t get any direct observations of the star that exploded – only its much brighter partner. Yet, principal investigator Christopher Kochanek, professor of astronomy at Ohio State and the Ohio Eminent Scholar in Observational Cosmology, does not regard this first result as a disappointment. Rather, it’s a proof of concept.
“Our underlying goal is to look for any kind of signature behavior that will enable us to identify stars before they explode,” he said. “It’s a speculative goal at this point, but at least now we know that it’s possible.”
“Maybe stars give off a clear signal of impending doom, maybe they don’t,” said study co-author Krzystof Stanek, professor of astronomy at Ohio State, “But we’ll learn something new about dying stars no matter the outcome.”