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Light echoes from ancient supernovae in the Large Magellanic Cloud


The light from historical supernovae could in principle still be visible as scattered-light echoes centuries after the explosion1,2,3,4,5,6. The detection of light echoes could allow us to pinpoint the supernova event both in position and age and, most importantly, permit the acquisition of spectra to determine the ‘type’ of the supernova centuries after the direct light from the explosion first reached Earth. Although echoes have been discovered around some nearby extragalactic supernovae7,8,9,10,11,12,13, targeted searches have not found any echoes in the regions of historical Galactic supernovae14,15,16. Here we report three faint variable-surface-brightness complexes with high apparent proper motions pointing back to three of the six smallest (and probably youngest) previously catalogued supernova remnants in the Large Magellanic Cloud, which are believed to have been thermonuclear (type Ia) supernovae17. Using the distance and apparent proper motions of these echo arcs, we estimate ages of 610 and 410 years for two of them.

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Figure 1: The light echoes from SN 1987A.
Figure 2: Arcs of light echoes in the Large Magellanic Cloud from previously unseen supernovae.
Figure 3: A plot of the light echo vectors in the LMC.

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This Letter is based on observations obtained at NOAO, operated by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, Inc. (AURA) under cooperative agreement with the NSF. C.S. thanks the National Science Foundation, the McDonnell Foundation, and Harvard University for their support of the SuperMACHO project. D.L.W. acknowledges support from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC). The work of K.C., M.H. and S.N. was performed under the auspices of the US Department of Energy, National Nuclear Security Administration by the University of California, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. A.C. acknowledges support from FONDECYT. D.M. was partially supported by FONDAP. J.L.P. was funded by the OSU Astronomy Department Fellowship.

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Correspondence to Nicholas B. Suntzeff.

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Rest, A., Suntzeff, N., Olsen, K. et al. Light echoes from ancient supernovae in the Large Magellanic Cloud. Nature 438, 1132–1134 (2005).

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