For half a century, scientists have worked to understand how supernovae explode, contrasting, in a way, the brightness of the explosion with the darkness left by the lack of explanation, Subaru spokeswoman Suzanne Frayser said.
“Although they produce bursts of light billions of times brighter than the sun and would seem easy to see, supernovae are difficult to observe,” Subaru officials said. “They often occur in galaxies millions or hundreds of million light-years away and appear as points of light rather than definite shapes that could indicate the type of explosion that produced them.”
Astronomers using the Subaru Telescope on Mauna Kea have cast some light on the problem recently, using a method that detects the shape of the supernovae, explosions of stars heavier than eight solar masses. Frayser said the study revealed that a lesser-believed theory about how the explosions occur, called, for lack of a better name, the clumpy 3D theory, prevailed over the more commonly accepted one.
“It goes against the grain of what people had thought,” Frayser said Friday, the day telescope officials announced the discovery.
The prevailing theory had been bipolar explosions.
Scientists measured polarization, which “supplies information about the direction of vibrating electromagnetic waves,” a press release about the discovery said. “An object shows various angles of polarization in a clumpy explosion while it shows a single angle of polarization in a bipolar explosion.”
Observations and studies of six supernovae showed characteristics of the clumpy 3D geometry, the release said.
Researchers involved in the discovery were from Japan, Germany and Italy.
“The fascinating aspect of this is, we have these spectacular events and yet we don’t know the process by which they occurred,” Frayser said, adding that historic records have noted supernovae in our solar system.
Supernovae are important in part because they release heavier elements that are then used in new star creation, she said.