These supernovae, called Type 1a, serve as cosmic mile markers to measure expansion of the universe because they can be seen at large distances, and they follow a reliable pattern of brightness. However, until now, scientists have been unsure what actually causes the explosions.
"These are such critical objects in understanding the universe," said Marat Gilfanov of the Max PlanckInstitute for Astrophysics in Germany and lead author of the study that appears in the Feb. 18 edition of the journal Nature. "It was a major embarrassment that we did not know how they worked. Now we are beginning to understand what lights the fuse of these explosions."