The Biggest Bang Theory; October 2010; Scientific American Magazine; by Michael Moyer; 1 Page(s)
When our sun comes to its ending in five billion years or so, it will fade into a quiescent white dwarf. Bigger stars go out with a bang—those with more than 10 times the mass of our sun collapse with enough vigor to spark a supernova, one of the most energetic events in the universe. For decades astronomers have suspected the existence of a type of stellar explosion that is bigger still—a “pair-instability” supernova, with 100 times more energy than an ordinary supernova. In the past year two teams of astronomers have finally found it, redrawing in a stroke the limit of how big things can be in this universe of ours.
All stars balance gravity with pressure. As light elements such as hydrogen fuse in a star’s core, the reactions generate photons that press outward, counteracting the pull of gravity. In larger stars, pressure at the core is high enough to fuse heavier elements such as oxygen and carbon, creating more photons. But in stars bigger than 100 solar masses or so, there’s a hitch. When oxygen ions begin to fuse with one another, the reaction releases photons that are so energetic, they spontaneously transmute into electron-positron pairs. With no photons, there’s no outward pressure—and the star begins to collapse.