Physicists shed new light on supernova mystery
08 Nov 2011



Physicists have a new theory on the mysterious mechanism that causes the explosion of massive, or core, stars.

Detection of neutrinos from supernova 1987A

​Detection of neutrinos from supernova 1987A strongly supports the gravitational core collapse theory of type II supernovae, but what re-energises the stalled shockwave to allow such an immense explosion to take place remains unknown. The emission of scalar gravitational waves from the neutron core of a collapsing heavy star may provide an explanation.

Credit: NASA

Physicists have a new theory on the mysterious mechanism that causes the explosion of massive, or core, stars. These 'Type II supernovae', the term given to exploding core stars, are huge and spectacular events - intriguing because for a short time they emit as much light as is normally produced by an entire galaxy. In fact, the enormous amount of energy they release is second only to the Big Bang itself. While there is general agreement on how the collapse of a core star begins, how the energy escapes from the star (the process that causes the explosion) is not fully understood. A paper published in Physics Letters B (3 November 2011) offers a new theoretical explanation.​​

A core star collapses when it runs out of the nuclear fuel it depends on and folds in on itself in less than a second under its own huge weight. This process releases enormous amounts of gravitational energy, causing an explosion. A small fraction of the total energy released during a supernova Type II (collapse of a lone massive star that burns energy through fusion), is emitted as light, the kinetic energy of the exploding stellar envelope is 10 times greater again, but by far the most energy is carried away by neutrinos. It is by studying these neutrinos (among the most difficult particles to detect) that physicists have come to general agreement that gravitational collapse does start the Type II supernova process.

Less understood is whether the outgoing pressure wave causing the explosion - that soon becomes a huge shock wave - travels all the way out and ejects the outer part of the star. Simulations have shown that the prompt shock stalls at distances of about 300 km from the centre because of the immense energy required to keep its momentum. Further simulations have found that the shock could re-start if the electrons could absorb a small amount of energy - about 1% of the neutrino energy available.

Physicists at the University of Aberdeen, STFC's Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, the University of Strathclyde and the Instituto Superior Técnico in Lisbon suggest in Physics Letters B that the solution to the Type II supernovae mystery might lie in a fundamental field long proposed by physicists to answer many important questions. They claim that a component of gravity called the 'scalar gravitational field' may be the driving force behind the release of energy that causes the star to finally explode. The existence of scalar fields are predicted but have not yet been detected.

"Scalar fields, unlike electromagnetic fields do not have a direction. They are needed to explain inflation in the early universe and dark energy in cosmology. They are also being hunted at CERN's Large Hadron Collider as the Higgs particle, giving rise to the origin of mass. In our case, we believe it is responsible for accelerating particles", said Professor Bob Bingham from STFC and the University of Strathclyde.

"The theory is that emission of these scalar gravitational waves from the neutron core of a collapsing heavy star may re-energise the stalled shockwave", added Dr Charles Wang from the University of Aberdeen.

Notes for editors

These scientists in the UK and Portugal have recently analysed the nonlinear coupling (a process by which energy is transferred from one system to another) to this scalar gravitational field. They found that under extreme conditions with strong time-varying gravity such as may be found in the interior of a newly-born neutron star, the scalar gravitational field may be stimulated by a parametric instability (a form of coupling between energy sources). Parametric instabilities were initially studied by Lord Rayleigh over a century ago.

The theory is that emission of these scalar gravitational waves from the neutron core of a collapsing heavy star may re-energise the stalled shockwave. This theoretical possibility for a new mechanism, - a potential solution to the type II supernova mystery is in Physics Letters B (link opens in a new window), Vol 705 (2011), Pages 148 – 151.


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Further information

University of Aberdeen

Research and the expansion of knowledge is fundamental to the distinguished 500-year history of the University of Aberdeen in Scotland. Ideas that have taken root at the University have gone on to change the world - from pure thought to practical solutions for everyday problems. The study of Physics has a long and illustrious history at the University and former staff include great physicists such as James Clerk Maxwell.

Today the team is involved in world-class research in both experimental and theoretical areas, with research topics covering classical areas such as general relativity, solid-state physics and dynamical systems and chaos. Physicists at the University are also involved in multi-disciplinary research topics, especially the application of physics to biology.

More information can be found on the University of Aberdeen website (link opens in a new window).

University of Strathclyde

Since its foundation in 1796, the University of Strathclyde's vision as a 'place of useful learning' has led the way in connecting new ideas to the solution of problems facing society, and producing high quality graduates ready for leadership and the professions.

Today, the University is recognised as one of the UK's leading international technological universities, and prides itself on partnership with the public and private sectors. Its bold vision is to transform research, education and knowledge exchange to deliver useful learning for the technological age.

More information can be found on the University of Strathclyde's website (link opens in a new window).

Instituto Superior Técnico website (link opens in a new window).

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