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An upper limit on the contribution of accreting white dwarfs to the type Ia supernova rate


There is wide agreement that type Ia supernovae (used as standard candles for cosmology) are associated with the thermonuclear explosions of white dwarf stars1,2. The nuclear runaway that leads to the explosion could start in a white dwarf gradually accumulating matter from a companion star until it reaches the Chandrasekhar limit3, or could be triggered by the merger of two white dwarfs in a compact binary system4,5. The X-ray signatures of these two possible paths are very different. Whereas no strong electromagnetic emission is expected in the merger scenario until shortly before the supernova, the white dwarf accreting material from the normal star becomes a source of copious X-rays for about 107 years before the explosion. This offers a means of determining which path dominates. Here we report that the observed X-ray flux from six nearby elliptical galaxies and galaxy bulges is a factor of 30–50 less than predicted in the accretion scenario, based upon an estimate of the supernova rate from their K-band luminosities. We conclude that no more than about five per cent of type Ia supernovae in early-type galaxies can be produced by white dwarfs in accreting binary systems, unless their progenitors are much younger than the bulk of the stellar population in these galaxies, or explosions of sub-Chandrasekhar white dwarfs make a significant contribution to the supernova rate.

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We thank F. Meyer and H. Ritter for discussions of various aspects of mass transfer in binary systems and the role of the common envelope evolution and L. Yungelson for discussions on the type Ia supernovae progenitor problem in general. This research has made use of Chandra archival data, provided by the Chandra X-ray Center (CXC) in the application package CIAO. This research has also made use of data products from the Two Micron All Sky Survey, which is a joint project of the University of Massachusetts and the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center/California Institute of Technology, funded by NASA and the NSF. The Spitzer Space telescope is operated by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, under contract with NASA.

Author Contributions Both authors contributed equally to this Letter.

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Correspondence to Marat Gilfanov.

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Gilfanov, M., Bogdán, Á. An upper limit on the contribution of accreting white dwarfs to the type Ia supernova rate. Nature 463, 924–925 (2010).

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