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Scientists probe mysterious origins of humongous star explosions

Super-luminous supernovas, the biggest known explosions in space, remain shrouded in mystery. But scientists are beginning to understand their origins, which could help explain the creation of heavy elements in the early universe.

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The hydrogen-poor SLSN-I are the most luminous of all known supernovas. Although these supernovas are not surrounded by massive, opaque hydrogen envelopes, their origins remain deeply uncertain.

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"They are indeed mysterious," Gal-Yam said.

One possibility is that they are hydrogen-poor stars that had inflated to very large diameters, dozens of times larger than our sun's. When they went supernova, they would radiate brightly and for a long time, but not be surrounded by much of a hydrogen envelope.

"The other option people have looked into is to have a more normal hydrogen-poor star which is only a few times larger than the sun — such stars are known in our galaxy and called Wolf-Rayet stars — and then pump it up with magnetic energy drained from an object called a magnetar, which is a rapidly rotating and highly magnetized neutron star, that was formed in the core of this Wolf-Rayet star when its core collapsed," Gal-Yam said. "The mystery here is that while we know that magnetars exist — we see them in our galaxy — it is not clear they rotate rapidly enough when they are born inside stars to power up such super-supernovae."

Investigating super-luminous supernovas can help better understand how heavy elements were created, "especially in the early universe," Gal-Yam told SPACE.com. In addition, "they are very bright and can serve as beacons, illuminating faint and obscure tiny dwarf galaxies at high redshifts — very far away, so the light was emitted a long time ago — allowing us to study [smyers1] the very early universe."

Gal-Yam detailed this research on super-luminous supernovas in a paper appearing in the Aug. 24 issue of the journal Science, in tandem with a second paper on the nature of gamma-ray bursts. That second paper revealed that data from the Swift and Fermi satellites support theories that the bursts are powered by cataclysmic stellar events leading up the formation of a black hole.

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