Maybe there is something to the legend of the phoenix.
Scientists are perplexed by a mysterious star, believed to have been completely annihilated in a powerful supernova — only to be found still alive, burning brighter than ever before.
According to a press release, the undead star in question was believed to have met its demise in a supernova back in 2012. And while there have been some cases of stars living through "partial" supernovas, no observed star has been known to survive a Type Ia explosion — the most powerful of its kind — which only goes to show how much there still is to learn about the life cycle of a star.
The researchers, whose work was published in The Astrophysical Journal, made their discovery by comparing images taken by NASA's Hubble Telescope before and after the supernova occurred back in 2012.
"We were expecting to see one of two things," said Curtis McCully, a postdoctoral researcher at University of California, Santa Barbara and lead author of the study, in the statement. "Either the star would have completely gone away, or maybe it would have still been there, meaning the star we saw in the pre-explosion images wasn’t the one that blew up."
But what they actually found was striking. McCully added: "Nobody was expecting to see a surviving star that was brighter. That was a real puzzle."
The team speculates that the event, dubbed SN 2012Z, was actually a Type Iax explosion, which is a weaker explosion than a true Type Ia. Scientists have previously suggested that this less powerful death of a star is actually a "failed" thermonuclear meltdown — and this new discovery could provide evidence for that suspicion.
As for the extra wattage? The team suggests that the failed explosion wasn't strong enough to blow too much of the star's material away, and a great deal of celestial shrapnel fell back onto itself as a result. A white dwarf also has a lot of concentrated weight, and, counterintuitively, when a star loses mass, it grows in volume, which is what they saw with SN 2012Z.
The research could help fill in some gaps and shed some light on why a star appeared to have cheated death.
"This star surviving is a little like Obi-Wan Kenobi coming back as a force ghost in Star Wars," said co-author Andy Howell from UC Santa Barbara, in the statement. "Nature tried to strike this star down, but it came back more powerful than we could have imagined."
More on star death: Scientists Spot Dying Star Brutally Tearing up Its Unfortunate Planets