Fermi Detects 'Shocking' Surprise from Supernova's Little Cousin
Astronomers using NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope have detected gamma-rays from a nova for the first time, a finding that stunned observers and theorists alike. The discovery overturns the notion that novae explosions lack the power to emit such high-energy radiation.Fermi Detects 'Shocking' Surprise from Supernova's
A nova is a sudden, short-lived brightening of an otherwise inconspicuous star. The outburst occurs when a white dwarf in a binary system erupts in an enormous thermonuclear explosion.
"In human terms, this was an immensely powerful eruption, equivalent to about 1,000 times the energy emitted by the sun every year," said Elizabeth Hays, a Fermi deputy project scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. "But compared to other cosmic events Fermi sees, it was quite modest. We're amazed that Fermi detected it so strongly."
Gamma rays are the most energetic form of light, and Fermi's Large Area Telescope (LAT) detected the nova for 15 days. Scientists believe the emission arose as a million-mile-per-hour shock wave raced from the site of the explosion.
A paper detailing the discovery will appear in the Aug. 13 edition of the journal Science.
The story opened in Japan during the predawn hours of March 11, when amateur astronomers Koichi Nishiyama and Fujio Kabashima in Miyaki-cho, Saga Prefecture, imaged a dramatic change in the brightness of a star in the constellation Cygnus. They realized that the star, known as V407 Cyg, was 10 times brighter than in an image they had taken three days earlier.
The team relayed the nova discovery to Hiroyuki Maehara at Kyoto University, who notified astronomers around the world for follow-up observations. Before this notice became widely available, the outburst was independently reported by three other Japanese amateurs: Tadashi Kojima, Tsumagoi-mura Agatsuma-gun, Gunma prefecture; Kazuo Sakaniwa, Higashichikuma-gun, Nagano prefecture; and Akihiko Tago, Tsuyama-shi, Okayama prefecture.
On March 13, Goddard's Davide Donato was on-duty as the LAT "flare advocate," a scientist who monitors the daily data downloads for sources of potential interest, when he noticed a significant detection in Cygnus. But linking this source to the nova would take several days, in part because key members of the Fermi team were in Paris for a meeting of the LAT scientific collaboration.
"This region is close to the galactic plane, which packs together many types of gamma-ray sources -- pulsars, supernova remnants, and others in our own galaxy, plus active galaxies beyond them," Donato said. "If the nova had occurred elsewhere in the sky, figuring out the connection would have been easier."