Mysterious burst confounds astrophysicists

Holy cow!

On 16 June 2018, a bright burst of light was observed by the Asteroid Terrestrial-impact Last Alert System (ATLAS) telescope in Hawaii, which automatically searches for optical transient events. The event, which received the automated catalogue name “AT2018cow”, immediately received a lot of attention and acquired a shorter name: “the Cow”. While transient objects are observed on the sky every day – caused, for example, by nearby asteroids or supernovae – two factors make the Cow intriguing. First, the very short time it took for the event to reach its extreme brightness and fade away again indicates that this event is nothing like anything observed before. Second, it took place relatively close to Earth, 200 million light years away in a star-forming arm of a galaxy in the Hercules constellation, making it possible to study the event in a wide range of wavelengths.

Soon after the ATLAS detection, the object was observed by more than 20 different telescopes around the world, revealing it to be 10–100 times brighter than a typical supernova. In addition to optical measurements, the object was observed for several days by space-based X- and gamma-ray telescopes such as NuSTAR, XMM-Newton, INTEGRAL and Swift, which also observed it in the UV energy range, as well as by radio telescopes on Earth. The IceCube observatory in Antarctica also identified two possible neutrinos coming from the Cow, although the detection is still compatible with a background fluctuation. The combination of all the data – demonstrating the power of multi-messenger astronomy – confirmed that this was not an ordinary supernova, but potentially something completely different.

Bright spark

While standard supernovae take several days to reach maximum brightness, the Cow did so in just 1.5 days, after which the brightness also started to decrease much faster than a typical supernova. Another notable feature was the lack of heavy-element decays. Normally, elements such as 56Ni produced during the explosion are the main source of supernovae brightness, but the Cow only revealed signs of lighter elements such as hydrogen and helium. Furthering the event’s mystique is the variability of the X-ray emission several days after its discovery, which is a clear sign of an energy source at its centre. Half a year after its discovery, two opposing theories aim to explain these features.

The first theory states that an unlucky compact object was destroyed when coming too close to a black hole – a phenomenon called a tidal disruption event. The fast increase in brightness excludes normal stars. On the other hand, a smaller object (such as a neutron star, a very dense star consisting of neutron matter) cannot explain the hydrogen and helium observed in the remnant, since it contains no proper elements. The remaining possibility is a white dwarf, a dense star remaining after a normal star has ceased fusion but kept from gravitational collapse into a neutron star or black hole by the electron-degeneracy pressure in its core. The observed emission from the Cow could be explained if a white dwarf was torn apart by tidal forces in the vicinity of a massive black hole. One problem with this theory, however, is the event’s location, since black holes with the sizes required for such an event are normally not found in the spiral arms of galaxies.

The opposing theory is that the Cow was a special type of supernova in which either a black hole or a quickly rotating highly magnetic neutron star, a magnetar, is produced. While the bright emission in the optical and UV bands are produced by the supernova-like event, the variable X-ray emission is produced by radiating gas falling into the compact object. Normally the debris of a supernova blocks most of the light from reaching us, but the progenitor of the Cow was likely a relatively low-mass star that caused little debris. A hint of its low mass was also found in the X-ray data. If so, the observations would constitute the first observation of the birth of a compact object, making these data very valuable for further theoretical development. Such magnetar sources could also be responsible for ultra-high-energy cosmic rays as well as high-energy neutrinos, two of which might have been observed already. The debate on the nature of the Cow continues, but the wealth of information gathered so far indicates the growing importance of multi-messenger astronomy.

Further reading

R Margutti et al. 2018 arXiv:1810.10720.

K Fang et al. 2018 arXiv:1812.11673.

N Paul and M Kuin 2018 arXiv:1808.08492.