A new study by American, Israeli and Japanese astronomers based on observations from the Subaru Telescope on Mauna Kea is shedding light on the origins of the mysterious and spectacular stellar explosions known as supernovae, offering new grist to decades of grinding scientific inquiry and debate.
The prevailing theory held that supernovae are generated when white dwarf stars — stars that have exhausted their nuclear fuel and are collapsing under their own weight — pulled so much matter from surrounding stellar bodies that they explode.
The new study, the largest of its kind to date, indicates that many so-called Type Ia supernovae result from the merging and annihilation of two separate white dwarf stars.
“The main goal of this survey was to measure the statistics of a large population of supernovae at a very early time, to get a look at possible star systems,” said co-author Dovi Poznanski in a news release issued by the University of California-Berkeley. “Two white dwarfs merging can explain well what we are seeing.”
The complete findings will be published in the scientific journal Monthly Notes of the Royal Astronomical Society.
Type Ia supernovae have been helpful in measuring distances across the universe and were an important element in advancing the theory that dark energy is accelerating the expansion of the universe. The 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to the team of scientists whose work led to the broad acceptance of that theory.
The new study does not conflict with the belief that the universe is expanding at a faster rate.
The survey from the Subaru Telescope accumulated a sample of 150 distant supernovas that exploded between 5 billion and 10 billion years ago.