Astronomers have discovered light echoing off material surrounding a recent supernova explosion, SN 2009ig. The dust and gas that are reflecting the light are so close to the eruption center that it is likely related to the progenitor star. This discovery supports the theory that exploding white dwarfs become unstable from matter donated by large, non-degenerate stars.
An image of the galaxy NGC 1015 that hosted supernova 2009ig. The image was taken with one of the 8.4-meter diameter mirrors of the Large Binocular Telescope on Mt. Graham in Arizona. The image was taken in 2011 after supernova 2009ig had faded and the echo was revealed. The echo is seen as a small blue dot above the center of the galaxy. The picture is a “false color” combination of images taken in red, visual, and blue filters.
SN 2009ig was discovered less than a day after it exploded by the Lick Observatory Supernova Search. It was found in the NGC 1015 galaxy at a distance of 127 million light-years in the constellation Cetus, the sea monster. SN 2009ig was the brightest supernova of 2009 and was well studied by amateur and professional astronomers around maximum brightness.
Observations with the Large Binocular Telescope and the Kitt Peak 4-meter telescope began in 2010, after SN 2009ig had faded by a factor of 10,000 from its peak brightness. “We planned to study how radioactive elements generated in the explosion decay with time, but we were surprised to see the fading abruptly halt. This was not a supernova we expected to produce a light echo,” said Peter Garnavich, professor of physics at the University of Notre Dame who is the lead investigator of the project.
SN 2009ig was classified as a normal type Ia event. Type Ia supernovae are thought to be thermonuclear detonations of remnant cores of stars known as white dwarfs. This type of supernova was used to discover that the expansion rate of the universe is accelerating, implying a mysterious dark energy dominates the content of the universe. Yet, the progenitors of type Ia explosions remain uncertain. “We have used these explosions as precise candles to measure cosmological distances. It would be great to know where they come from,” said Garnavich.