Explaining a supernova’s ‘string of pearls’ | Science & Technology

Physicists often turn to the Rayleigh-Taylor instability to explain why fluid structures form in plasmas, but that may not be the full story when it comes to the ring of hydrogen clumps around supernova 1987A, research from the University of Michigan suggests.

In a study published in Physical Review Letters, the team argues that the Crow instability does a better job of explaining the “string of pearls” encircling the remnant of the star, shedding light on a longstanding astrophysical mystery.

“The fascinating part about this is that the same mechanism that breaks up airplane wakes could be in play here,” said Michael Wadas, corresponding author of the study and a graduate student in mechanical engineering at the time of the work.

In jet contrails, the Crow instability creates breaks in the smooth line of clouds because of the spiraling airflow coming off the end of each wing, known as wingtip vortices. These vortices flow into one another, creating gaps — something we can see because of the water vapor in the exhaust. And the Crow instability can do something that Rayleigh-Taylor could not: predict the number of clumps seen around the remnant.

“The Rayleigh-Taylor instability could tell you that there might be clumps, but it would be very difficult to pull a number out of it,” said Wadas, who is now a postdoctoral scholar at the California Institute of Technology.

Supernova 1987A is among the most famous stellar explosions because it’s relatively close to Earth at 163,000 light years away, and its light reached Earth at a time when sophisticated observatories existed to witness its evolution. It is the first supernova visible to the naked eye since Kepler’s supernova in 1604, making it an incredibly rare astrophysical event that has played an outsized role in shaping our understanding of stellar evolution.

While much is still unknown about the star that exploded, it is believed that the ring of gas surrounding the star ahead of the explosion came from the…

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