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Observational properties of thermonuclear supernovae


The explosive death of a star as a supernova is one of the most dramatic events in the Universe. Supernovae have an outsized impact on many areas of astrophysics: they are major contributors to the chemical enrichment of the cosmos and significantly influence the formation of subsequent generations of stars and the evolution of galaxies. Here we review the observational properties of thermonuclear supernovae—exploding white dwarf stars resulting from the stellar evolution of low-mass stars in close binary systems. The best known objects in this class are type-Ia supernovae (SNe Ia), astrophysically important in their application as standardizable candles to measure cosmological distances and the primary source of iron group elements in the Universe. Surprisingly, given their prominent role, SN Ia progenitor systems and explosion mechanisms are not fully understood; the observations we describe here provide constraints on models, not always in consistent ways. Recent advances in supernova discovery and follow-up have shown that the class of thermonuclear supernovae includes more than just SNe Ia, and we characterize that diversity in this review.

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Fig. 1: Lightcurves of SNe Ia.
Fig. 2: Homogeneous optical spectra of SNe Ia.
Fig. 3: Lightcurve shape standardization of SNe Ia.
Fig. 4: Early-time SN Ia lightcurves.
Fig. 5: SN Ia nebular spectroscopy and line shifts.
Fig. 6: The effect of environment on SN Ia standardization.
Fig. 7: The thermonuclear supernova zoo.
Fig. 8: Optical and near-infrared spectroscopy of thermonuclear supernovae.


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We thank C. Burns, R. Cartier, M. Graham, E. Hsiao, D. Jones, W. Li, M. Rigault, and S. Taubenberger for providing the figures used in this review. We are grateful to R. Foley, A. Gal-Yam, P. Nugent and K. Shen for comments and helpful suggestions. We also thank F. Panther for alerting us to the PhD thesis of T. Pankey Jr as the genesis of a radioactive nickel-56 power source for the luminosity of supernovae. Support for this review was provided in part by US National Science Foundation award AST-1615455 (S.W.J.), FP7 EU/European Research Council (ERC) grant 615929 (M.S.) and H2020/ERC grant 758638 (K.M).

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S.W.J. wrote the introduction and the section ‘The thermonuclear supernova zoo’. K.M. wrote the section ‘Type-Ia supernovae’ and M.S. wrote the section ‘SNe Ia and their environments’. All of the authors discussed and edited the text.

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Correspondence to Saurabh W. Jha.

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Jha, S.W., Maguire, K. & Sullivan, M. Observational properties of thermonuclear supernovae. Nat Astron 3, 706–716 (2019).

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