A Black Hole Triggers a Premature Supernova

The first observation of a brand-new kind of supernova had been predicted by theorists but never before confirmed

Maunakea, Hawaiʻi – In 2017, a particularly luminous and unusual source of radio waves was discovered in data taken by the Very Large Array (VLA) Sky Survey, a project that scans the night sky in radio wavelengths. Now, led by Caltech graduate student Dillon Dong, a team of astronomers has established that the bright radio flare was caused by a black hole or neutron star crashing into its companion star in a never-before-seen process.

“Massive stars usually explode as supernovae when they run out of nuclear fuel,” says Gregg Hallinan, professor of astronomy at Caltech. “But in this case, an invading black hole or neutron star has prematurely triggered its companion star to explode.” This is the first time a merger-triggered supernova has ever been confirmed.

A paper about the findings, which includes data from W. M. Keck Observatory on Maunakea in Hawaiʻi, appears in the journal Science on September 3.