<<Type Ia supernovae occur in binary systems (two stars orbiting one another) in which one of the stars is a white dwarf while the other can vary from a giant star to an even smaller white dwarf. A white dwarf is the remnant of a star that has completed its normal life cycle and has ceased nuclear fusion. However, white dwarfs of the common carbon-oxygen variety are capable of further fusion reactions that release a great deal of energy if their temperatures rise high enough.
Physically, carbon-oxygen white dwarfs with a low rate of rotation are limited to below 1.38 solar masses. Beyond this, they re-ignite and in some cases trigger a supernova explosion. Somewhat confusingly, this limit is often referred to as the Chandrasekhar mass, despite being marginally different from the absolute Chandrasekhar limit where electron degeneracy pressure is unable to prevent catastrophic collapse. If a white dwarf gradually accretes mass from a binary companion, the general hypothesis is that its core will reach the ignition temperature for carbon fusion as it approaches the limit. If the white dwarf merges with another star (a very rare event), it will momentarily exceed the limit and begin to collapse, again raising its temperature past the nuclear fusion ignition point. Within a few seconds of initiation of nuclear fusion, a substantial fraction of the matter in the white dwarf undergoes a runaway reaction, releasing enough energy (1–2×1044 J) to unbind the star in a supernova explosion.
This category of supernovae produces consistent peak luminosity because of the uniform mass of white dwarfs that explode via the accretion mechanism. The stability of this value allows these explosions to be used as standard candles to measure the distance to their host galaxies because the visual magnitude of the supernovae depends primarily on the distance.
The Type Ia supernova is a sub-category in the Minkowski-Zwicky supernova classification scheme, which was devised by American astronomer Rudolph Minkowski and Swiss astronomer Fritz Zwicky. There are several means by which a supernova of this type can form, but they share a common underlying mechanism. When a slowly-rotating carbon-oxygen white dwarf accretes matter from a companion, it can exceed the Chandrasekhar limit of about 1.44 solar masses, beyond which it can no longer support its weight with electron degeneracy pressure. In the absence of a countervailing process, the white dwarf would collapse to form a neutron star, as normally occurs in the case of a white dwarf that is primarily composed of magnesium, neon, and oxygen.
The current view among astronomers who model Type Ia supernova explosions, however, is that this limit is never actually attained and collapse is never initiated. Instead, the increase in pressure and density due to the increasing weight raises the temperature of the core, and as the white dwarf approaches about 1% of the limit, a period of convection ensues, lasting approximately 1,000 years. At some point in this simmering phase, a deflagration flame front is born, powered by carbon fusion. The details of the ignition are still unknown, including the location and number of points where the flame begins. Oxygen fusion is initiated shortly thereafter, but this fuel is not consumed as completely as carbon.
Once fusion has begun, the temperature of the white dwarf starts to rise. A main sequence star supported by thermal pressure would expand and cool in order to counterbalance an increase in thermal energy. However, degeneracy pressure is independent of temperature; the white dwarf is unable to regulate the burning process in the manner of normal stars, so it is vulnerable to a runaway fusion reaction. The flame accelerates dramatically, in part due to the Rayleigh–Taylor instability and interactions with turbulence. It is still a matter of considerable debate whether this flame transforms into a supersonic detonation from a subsonic deflagration.
Regardless of the exact details of nuclear burning, it is generally accepted that a substantial fraction of the carbon and oxygen in the white dwarf is burned into heavier elements within a period of only a few seconds, raising the internal temperature to billions of degrees. This energy release from thermonuclear burning (1–2×1044 J) is more than enough to unbind the star; that is, the individual particles making up the white dwarf gain enough kinetic energy to fly apart from each other. The star explodes violently and releases a shock wave in which matter is typically ejected at speeds on the order of 5,000–20000 km/s, roughly 6% of the speed of light. The energy released in the explosion also causes an extreme increase in luminosity. The typical visual absolute magnitude of Type Ia supernovae is Mv = −19.3, with little variation>>