Some old stars, white dwarfs, might be held up by their rapid spins and explode as they slow down.
(PhysOrg.com) -- In the Hollywood blockbuster "Speed," a bomb on a bus is rigged to blow up if the bus slows down below 50 miles per hour. The premise - slow down and you explode - makes for a great action movie plot, and also happens to have a cosmic equivalent.
New research shows that some old stars might be held up by their rapid spins, and when they slow down, they explode as supernovae. Thousands of these "time bombs" could be scattered throughout our Galaxy.
"We haven't found one of these 'time bomb' stars yet in the Milky Way, but this research suggests that we've been looking for the wrong signs. Our work points to a new way of searching for supernova precursors," said astrophysicist Rosanne Di Stefano of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA).
The specific type of stellar explosion Di Stefano and her colleagues studied is called a Type Ia supernova. It occurs when an old, compact star known as a white dwarf destabilizes.
A white dwarf is a stellar remnant that has ceased nuclear fusion. It typically can weigh up to 1.4 times as much as our Sun - a figure called the Chandrasekhar mass after the astronomer who first calculated it. Any heavier, and gravity overwhelms the forces supporting the white dwarf, compacting it and igniting runaway nuclear fusion that blows the star apart.
There are two possible ways for a white dwarf to exceed the Chandrasekhar mass and explode as a Type Ia supernova. It can accrete gas from a donor star, or two white dwarfs can collide. Most astronomers favor the first scenario as the more likely explanation. But we would expect to see certain signs if the theory is correct, and we don't for most Type Ia supernovae.