The 3D Death of a Massive Star

What happens at the very end of a massive star’s life, just before its core’s collapse? A group led by Sean Couch (California Institute of Technology and Michigan State University) claim to have carried out the first three-dimensional simulations of these final few minutes — revealing new clues about the factors that can lead a massive star to explode in a catastrophic supernova at the end of its life.

A Giant Collapses

In dying massive stars, in-falling matter bounces off the of collapsed core, creating a shock wave. If the shock wave loses too much energy as it expands into the star, it can stall out — but further energy input can revive it and result in a successful explosion of the star as a core-collapse supernova.

In simulations of this process, however, theorists have trouble getting the stars to consistently explode: the shocks often stall out and fail to revive. Couch and his group suggest that one reason might be that these simulations usually start at core collapse assuming spherical symmetry of the progenitor star.

Adding Turbulence

Couch and his collaborators suspect that the key is in the final minutes just before the star collapses. Models that assume a spherically-symmetric star can’t include the effects of convection as the final shell of silicon is burned around the core — and those effects might have a significant impact!

To test this hypothesis, the group ran fully 3D simulations of the final three minutes of the life of a 15 solar-mass star, ending with core collapse, bounce, and shock-revival. The outcome was striking: the 3D modeling introduced powerful turbulent convection (with speeds of several hundred km/s!) in the last few minutes of silicon-shell burning. As a result, the initial structure and motions in the star just before core collapse were very different from those in core-collapse simulations that use spherically-symmetric initial conditions. The turbulence was then further amplified during collapse and formation of the shock, generating pressure that aided the shock expansion — which should ultimately help the star explode!

The group cautions that their simulations are still very idealized, but these results clearly indicate that the 3D structure of massive stellar cores has an important impact on the core-collapse supernova mechanism.


Sean M. Couch et al. 2015 ApJ 808 L21 doi:10.1088/2041-8205/808/1/L21