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Exclusion of a luminous red giant as a companion star to the progenitor of supernova SN 2011fe



Type Ia supernovae are thought to result from a thermonuclear explosion of an accreting white dwarf in a binary system1,2, but little is known of the precise nature of the companion star and the physical properties of the progenitor system. There are two classes of models1,3: double-degenerate (involving two white dwarfs in a close binary system2,4) and single-degenerate models5,6. In the latter, the primary white dwarf accretes material from a secondary companion until conditions are such that carbon ignites, at a mass of 1.38 times the mass of the Sun. The type Ia supernova SN 2011fe was recently detected in a nearby galaxy7. Here we report an analysis of archival images of the location of SN 2011fe. The luminosity of the progenitor system (especially the companion star) is 10–100 times fainter than previous limits on other type Ia supernova progenitor systems8,9,10, allowing us to rule out luminous red giants and almost all helium stars as the mass-donating companion to the exploding white dwarf.

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Figure 1: The site of SN 2011fe in galaxy M101 as imaged by the Hubble Space Telescope/Advanced Camera for Surveys.
Figure 2: Progenitor system constraints in a Hertzsprung–Russell diagram.


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We thank D. Maoz and S. Starrfield for comments, and the staff of the W. M. Keck Observatory, especially J. Lyke and R. Campbell, for their assistance in obtaining the NIRC adaptive optics imaging. P.P. acknowledges discussions on symbiotic binaries with J. Mikolajewska. M.M.K. acknowledges support by NASA’s Hubble Fellowship and the Carnegie-Princeton Fellowship. J.S.B.’s group was partially supported by NASA. J.S.B., A.V.F., L.B. and S.W.J. acknowledge support from the US National Science Foundation. A.V.F.’s group at UC Berkeley, and the Katzman Automatic Imaging Telescope (KAIT) and its ongoing operation, have received financial assistance from NASA, Gary and Cynthia Bengier, the Richard & Rhoda Goldman Fund, the Sylvia and Jim Katzman Foundation, and the TABASGO Foundation. E.O.O. is supported by an Einstein Fellowship from NASA. M.M.S. and J.B. acknowledge the support of Hilary Lipsitz and the American Museum of Natural History for essential funding. M.S. acknowledges support from the Royal Society. Some of the data presented here were obtained at the W. M. Keck Observatory, which is operated as a scientific partnership among the California Institute of Technology, the University of California, and NASA; the observatory was made possible by the generous financial support of the W. M. Keck Foundation. Observations were obtained with the Samuel Oschin Telescope at the Palomar Observatory as part of the Palomar Transient Factory project, a scientific collaboration between the California Institute of Technology, Columbia University, La Cumbres Observatory, the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center, the University of Oxford, and the Weizmann Institute of Science. The National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center, provided staff, computational resources, and data storage for this project.

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W.L., J.S.B., S.W.J., C.M. and B.P. analysed the Hubble Space Telescope photometry in the context of progenitor limits. P.P. contributed the analysis of progenitor models. A.A.M., J.W.R. and S.B.C. analysed historical imaging from the Palomar Transient Factory (PTF) and KAIT in the context of nova limits. M.M.K. and K.J.S. provided the analysis of Spitzer observations. M.M.S. and J.B. provided analysis of the Hubble Space Telescope imaging. M.M.S. also contributed interpretation of the progenitor limits. N.R.B., E.O.O. and L.B. contributed analysis and interpretation of the historical X-ray imaging. D.P., R.M.Q., S.R.K., N.M.L., E.O.O., S.B.C., M.S., D.A.H., J.S.B., P.E.N., M.M.K., L.B. and K.M. were responsible for obtaining, reducing, and analysing the PTF observations. A.S. and H.-Y.S. obtained the Keck adaptive optics imaging and S.B.C. reduced and analysed those images. A.V.F., M.G., W.L. and J.M.S. were responsible for the KAIT imaging and analysis.

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Correspondence to Weidong Li.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Li, W., Bloom, J., Podsiadlowski, P. et al. Exclusion of a luminous red giant as a companion star to the progenitor of supernova SN 2011fe. Nature 480, 348–350 (2011).

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