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Pulsational pair instability as an explanation for the most luminous supernovae


The extremely luminous supernova SN 2006gy (ref. 1) challenges the traditional view that the collapse of a stellar core is the only mechanism by which a massive star makes a supernova, because it seems too luminous by more than a factor of ten. Here we report that the brightest supernovae in the modern Universe arise from collisions between shells of matter ejected by massive stars that undergo an interior instability arising from the production of electron–positron pairs2. This ‘pair instability’ leads to explosive burning that is insufficient to unbind the star, but ejects many solar masses of the envelope. After the first explosion, the remaining core contracts and searches for a stable burning state. When the next explosion occurs, several solar masses of material are again ejected, which collide with the earlier ejecta. This collision can radiate 1050 erg of light, about a factor of ten more than an ordinary supernova. Our model is in good agreement with the observed light curve for SN 2006gy and also shows that some massive stars can produce more than one supernova-like outburst.

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Figure 1: Velocity structure following the second eruption of a 110-solar-mass pulsational pair-instability supernova.
Figure 2: Cumulative light curve for the 110-solar-mass model.
Figure 3: Absolute R-band magnitudes resulting from the strong second explosion of the 110-solar-mass model.

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This work was supported by the Scientific Discovery through Advanced Computing (SciDAC) Program of the US Department of Energy, by NASA, and by the Russian Foundation for Basic Research and Science Schools. At Los Alamos, this work was carried out under the auspices of the National Nuclear Security Administration of the US Department of Energy.

Author Contributions S.E.W. and A.H. proposed that the light curves of pulsational pair-instability supernovae might have a large range in luminosity including exceptionally brilliant supernovae. They carried out the calculations of stellar evolution and explosion. S.B. provided expertise in the physics of supernovae with circumstellar interaction and calculated all the light curves from the models except those done with Kepler.

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Correspondence to S. E. Woosley.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

This file contains Supplementary Figures S1 – S12 with Legends and Supplementary Table 1. The figures show the evolution of the composition through the two outbursts, the bolometric light curve of the two bursts, the multicolor photometry of models in which the density and explosion energy are varied, and other details of the emission. The table presents a summary of results for other similar mass stars with highly variable explosion properties. (PDF 333 kb)

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Woosley, S., Blinnikov, S. & Heger, A. Pulsational pair instability as an explanation for the most luminous supernovae. Nature 450, 390–392 (2007).

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