Uber-Bright Supernova Is a Stellar Mystery

A network of small, ground-based telescopes hunting the night-time skies for transient supernovas fished out a whopper -- a one-of-a-kind cosmic explosion that at its peak blasted out more light than 50 times all the stars in the Milky Way galaxy.

A network of small, ground-based telescopes hunting the night-time skies for transient supernovas fished out a whopper -- a one-of-a-kind cosmic explosion that at its peak blasted out more light than 50 times all the stars in the Milky Way galaxy.

The object, which takes its name, ASASSN-15lh from the All-Sky Automated Survey for SuperNovae, was first spotted on June 14, 2015. A week later, astronomer Subo Dong, with the Kavli Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics at Peking University, was looking at the object's spectra, a chemical breakdown of its light, and realized something strange was going on.

GALLERY: The Supercomputer Supernova

The measurements were so different, the survey's automated software didn't even recognize it as a supernova, Dong wrote in an email to Discovery News.

"We thought about various non-supernova, exotic scenarios, but none seemed to work," Dong said.

Working with colleagues at observatories worldwide, Dong started thinking the object may belong to a rare class of so-called superluminous supernovae, a suspicion bolstered by follow-up measurements taken by the 10-meter South African Large Telescope .

"Seeing the SALT spectrum was the moment we knew for sure that we were on to something big," Dong said.

ASASSN-15lh is located about 3.8 billion light-years away, but is so bright that if were as close as Sirius, a bright star 8.6 light-years away from Earth, the supernova would appear to be almost as bright as the sun.

NEWS: Mystery Pulsar and Nebula Born From Same Supernova

It is 200 times more powerful than the average supernova and more than twice as bright as any supernova previously found.

Scientists are virtually in the dark about what triggered the blast. One theory is that a dense, rapidly spinning neutron star, known as a magenetar, is powering the supernova. The star would have to be spinning at least 1,000 times a second, a speed that challenges the laws of physics. It also would have to be nearly 100 percent efficient at converting its spin energy into light, another theoretical limit.

Another option is that ASASSN-15lh is powered by some nuclear reactions associated with a supermassive black hole at the center of its host galaxy, but scientists don't know of any such phenomenon, nor have they pinpointed the object's precise location in its galaxy. Additional information is expected this year from Hubble Space Telescope observations.

"The Hubble observations are meant to show whether or not the event happened right at the nucleus of the host galaxy, or whether it is offset from the center. If it is offset, this would rule out the interpretation of this event as somehow related to the host galaxy's central supermassive black hole -- assuming it has one, as most massive galaxies do," Ohio State astronomer Todd Thompson wrote in an email to Discovery News.

NEWS: Hubble Shows Mirror, Mirror, Mirror, Mirror of an Ancient Supernova

"What kind of event from a supermassive black hole could produce such an event? We don't know since we've never seen something like it, but it has been suggested that it might be a so-called ‘tidal disruption event' -- a bright explosion arising when a star gets torn apart and then eaten by a supermassive black hole. The problem is that we've seen these events before, and they don't look like ASASSN-15lh. In particular, most stars are composed of mostly hydrogen and helium, and yet the spectra of ASASSN-15lh show no signs of either," Thompson said.

The supernova's host galaxy itself presents another puzzle. Most superluminous supernovae are found in small, dwarf galaxy where lots of stars are forming. ASASSN-15lh, in contrast, appears to be in a large, but relatively quiescent galaxy about three times more massive than the Milky Way.

Scientists have eliminated the possibility that the supernova appears brighter than it actually is due to any magnifying effects of intervening galaxies, a phenomena known as gravitational lensing.

"The good news is that ASASSN-15lh is bright, so it is relatively easy to get high-quality observations. Many groups of astronomers are using some of the most advanced telescopes, ground- and space-based, to study ASASSN-15lh. I am sure that in the near future, we will understand it much better," Dong said.

The research appears in this week's issue of Science.

This artist's conception shows a powerful supernova ripping through a nebula.

NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope was launched 10 years ago and has since peeled back an infrared veil on the Cosmos. The mission has worked in parallel with NASA's other "Great Observatories" (Hubble and Chandra) to provide coverage of the emissions from galaxies, interstellar dust, comet tails and the solar system's planets. But some of the most striking imagery to come from the orbiting telescope has been that of nebulae. Supernova remnants, star-forming regions and planetary nebulae are some of the most iconic objects to be spotted by Spitzer. So, to celebrate a decade in space, here are Discovery News' favorite Spitzer nebulae.

First up, the Helix Nebula -- a so-called planetary nebula -- located around 700 light-years from Earth. A planetary nebula is the remnants of the death throes of a red giant star -- all that remains is a white dwarf star in the core, clouded by cometary dust.

Spitzer will often work in tandem with other space telescopes to image a broad spectrum of light from celestial objects. Here, the supernova remnant RCW 86 is imaged by NASA's Spitzer, WISE and Chandra, and ESA's XMM-Newton.

Staring deep into the Messier 78 star-forming nebula, Spitzer sees the infrared glow of baby stars blasting cavities into the cool nebulous gas and dust.

The green-glowing infrared ring of the nebula RCW 120 is caused by tiny dust grains called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons -- the bubble is being shaped by the powerful stellar winds emanating from the central massive O-type star.

Spitzer stares deep into the Orion nebula, imaging the infrared light generated by a star factory.

In the year 1054 A.D. a star exploded as a supernova. Today, Spitzer was helped by NASA's other "Great Observatories" (Hubble and Chandra) to image the nebula that remains. The Crab Nebula is the result; a vast cloud of gas and dust with a spinning pulsar in the center.

The Tycho supernova remnant as imaged by Spitzer (in infrared wavelengths) and Chandra (X-rays). The supernova's powerful shockwave is visible as the outer blue shell, emitting X-rays.

Over 2,200 baby stars can be seen inside the bustling star-forming region RCW 49.

The "Wing" of the Small Magellanic Cloud (SMC) glitters with stars and warm clouds of dust and gas. By combining observations by Spitzer, Chandra and Hubble, the complex nature of this nebulous region can be realized.

The giant star Zeta Ophiuchi is blasting powerful stellar winds into space, creating an impressive shock wave in the interstellar medium.