Scientists have discovered what appears to be a new type of hypernova. Called a ‘magneto-rotational hypernova’, this rare phenomenon of a rotating collapsing star results in the formation of an abundance of heavy elements. The presence of a magnetic field causes violent rotational energy, enough energy to produce metals that simply shouldn’t be possible considering the star’s age and elemental composition.
This phenomenon could be part of the answer as to how life on our planet became possible. When a star is set to burst, the presence of heavier elements suggests that two neutron stars have merged, but a low ratio of iron-to-hydrogen suggests that the star behind this particular explosion was an early star, and did not benefit from the presence of a nearby neighbor. Instead the star collapsed in on itself, spinning with enough energy to create immense bursts of gamma radiation. Gamma radiation is one way of calculating whether an explosion can be classified as supernova or hypernova, and the readings taken by scientists were certainly hypernova-territory.
When our universe was first starting out, most stars were made of hydrogen and helium, two of the most abundant and lightest elements we currently know of. By fusing hydrogen with helium, stars create fuel to generate energy. This process is known as nuclear fusion. The biggest stars, when they begin to run out of fuel, have enough energy to cause the fusion of heavier metals. As larger stars begin to collapse, they form neutron stars and black holes.In various stages of volatility, these energetic and explosive reactions create an environment where heavier elements can form.
Caused by the death of a large star, a supernova is one of the strongest explosions in the known universe. A single supernova can expel more energy in a day than our sun will in its entire lifetime. That’s already quite a significant amount of energy. Multiply that power by anything from 10 to 100 and you get a hypernova. A hypernova is also caused by the death of a giant star, but the intensity and energy are a lot more than those of a supernova. For a nova to go from super to hyper, the star has to be at least 40 times the mass of our sun.
High-power radiation and jets of plasma are emitted at the speed of light , as chunks of matter are converted to electromagnetic radiation in the most energetic event known to man. A key difference between hypernovae and supernovae is that hypernovae have a higher presence of heavy metals. During the fusion process a supernova does not have enough energy to produce heavy metals like zinc or uranium.
This brings us to a star named SMSS J200322.54-114203.3. Situated in the south-eastern corner of the Aquila constellation, this rare celestial body can be found close to the border of the Sagittarius and Capricornus constellations. Also known as SMSS 2003-1142, the red giant star is 13-billion years old, and has always been assumed to be a ‘poor-metal star’ due its low iron-hydrogen ratio.
Located approximately 12000 km from our solar system, what’s interesting about SMSS 2003-1142 is that although it has a low iron-to-hydrogen ratio, it also has high levels of heavier elements (such as the aforementioned zinc and uranium). This is a rare combination of elements, and requires that certain conditions be met in order to produce such unique characteristics. This led scientists to believe that the star was not only an early star, but that there also had to be the presence of additional factors to explain such a significant amount of heavier elements.
Scientists have theorised that the only plausible explanation is that the star had to originate from a rapid rotation collapse, with the additional presence of a strong magnetic field being critical to an outcome of this nature. Evidence points to this being the first hypernova of its kind, a magneto-rotational hypernova.
The abundance of zinc, in particular, alludes to the fact that this was a highly-energetic hypernova, and the first one that we’ve discovered. Scientists have gone as far as saying that this hypernova was so intense it produced all stable elements in the periodic table at once. This is the first discovery of a hypernova where a combination of rapid rotation and strong magnetism results in the massive explosion of a core collapse. The end result would explain how it’s possible to have a ‘poor-metal’ star with high levels of heavy elements.
Every star and every planet has a chemical signature; identifiers that allow scientists to figure out what kind of environment to expect. The more unique these signifiers are – and the more of them we discover and understand – the quicker our body of knowledge grows. The discovery of a magneto-rotational hypernova demonstrates that our knowledge of the universe, much like the cosmos itself, is constantly expanding. Understanding how these cosmic processes unfold gives us insight into the creation of our universe. Having a greater understanding of how the universe works will not only benefit us, but our future generations as well.