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What is a Pair-Instability Supernova?

A Pair-Instability Supernova is a rare, powerful explosion that marks the death of a massive star. When the star's core becomes so hot, energy converts into matter and antimatter, causing a catastrophic collapse and a subsequent colossal blast. This cosmic event scatters elements across the universe, seeding the birth of new stars. How does this process shape our galaxy? Continue reading to uncover the stellar secrets.
Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

A pair-instability supernova is a special type of supernova, or stellar explosion, occurring only in stars which are very massive (between 130 and 250 solar masses), have low to moderate rotation rates, and low metallicity (primarily made of hydrogen and helium). In a pair-instability supernova, the star's core is so extremely energetic that collisions between gamma rays and atomic nuclei result in the spontaneous creation of electron-positron pairs, siphoning away much of the thermal energy and leading to a drop in pressure. This pressure drop results in the star partially collapsing due to gravity.

Collapse regions are quickly superheated to extreme temperatures and pressures, causing the rapid fusion of atomic nuclei and tremendous energy release. The resulting thermal energy is so huge that it blows the star completely apart, leaving behind nothing behind. All other supernovae leave behind black hole or neutron star remnants.

A pair-instability supernova occurs in stars that are very massive.
A pair-instability supernova occurs in stars that are very massive.

Pair-instability supernovae are thought to be rare today, with only one candidate noted in recent astronomical history: SN 2006gy, which was called "the brightest stellar explosion ever recorded." It was ten times more powerful than a supernova, and like other like supernovae explosions was referred to as a hypernova. Some scientists have proposed that pair-instability supernovae might leave behind a quark star remnant, but this is unconfirmed.

Although pair-instability supernovae are rarely observed in the present, it is thought that they were very numerous in the distant past, among the primordial, supermassive, low-metallicity Population III stars. These are the first stars to come into being after the 100 million year period of darkness following the Big Bang. They are sufficiently old and distant to be practically unobservable using our current telescope technology, although the James Webb Space Telescope has imaged ancient light thought to be the faint glow of Population III stars.

Eta Carinæ is a star in our galaxy with so much mass (100-150 solar masses) that it may explode in a pair-instability supernova at the end of its life. Being only 4,500 light years away from the Earth, if it were to explode, it would be so bright that it would be possible to read at night using its light. The supernova would even be visible during the day, like the Moon. Fortunately, it would still not be energetic enough to significantly damage Earth's atmosphere.

Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

Michael is a longtime AllTheScience contributor who specializes in topics relating to paleontology, physics, biology, astronomy, chemistry, and futurism. In addition to being an avid blogger, Michael is particularly passionate about stem cell research, regenerative medicine, and life extension therapies. He has also worked for the Methuselah Foundation, the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and the Lifeboat Foundation.

Learn more...
Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

Michael is a longtime AllTheScience contributor who specializes in topics relating to paleontology, physics, biology, astronomy, chemistry, and futurism. In addition to being an avid blogger, Michael is particularly passionate about stem cell research, regenerative medicine, and life extension therapies. He has also worked for the Methuselah Foundation, the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and the Lifeboat Foundation.

Learn more...

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    • A pair-instability supernova occurs in stars that are very massive.
      By: satori
      A pair-instability supernova occurs in stars that are very massive.