Supernovas & Supernova Remnants

NASA's Chandra Opens Treasure Trove of Cosmic Delights

Six images in a montage
Chandra Archive Collection: A Montage of Light From Space

Humanity has "eyes" that can detect all different types of light through telescopes around the globe and a fleet of observatories in space. From radio waves to gamma rays, this "multiwavelength" approach to astronomy is crucial to getting a complete understanding of objects in space.

This compilation gives examples of images from different missions and telescopes being combined to better understand the science of the universe. Each of these images contains data from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory as well as other telescopes. Various types of objects are shown (galaxies, supernova remnants, stars, planetary nebulas), but together they demonstrate the possibilities when data from across the electromagnetic spectrum are assembled.

Debris from Stellar Explosion Not Slowed After 400 Years

Astronomers have used NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory to record material blasting away from the site of an exploded star at speeds faster than 20 million miles per hour. This is about 25,000 times faster than the speed of sound on Earth.

Kepler's supernova remnant is the debris from a detonated star that is located about 20,000 light years away from Earth in our Milky Way galaxy. In 1604 early astronomers, including Johannes Kepler who became the object's namesake, saw the supernova explosion that destroyed the star.

We now know that Kepler's supernova remnant is the aftermath of a so-called Type Ia supernova, where a small dense star, known as a white dwarf, reaches a critical mass limit after interacting with a companion star and undergoes a thermonuclear explosion that shatters the white dwarf and launches its remains outward.

The latest study tracked the speed of 15 small "knots" of debris in Kepler's supernova remnant, all glowing in X-rays, all glowing in X-rays. The fastest knot was measured to have a speed of 23 million miles per hour, the highest speed ever detected of supernova remnant debris in X-rays. The average speed of the knots is about 10 million miles per hour, and the blast wave is expanding at about 15 million miles per hour. These results independently confirm the 2017 discovery of knots travelling at speeds more than 20 million miles per hour in Kepler's supernova remnant.

Researchers in the latest study estimated the speeds of the knots by analyzing Chandra X-ray spectra, which give the intensity of X-rays at different wavelengths, obtained in 2016. By comparing the wavelengths of features in the X-ray spectrum with laboratory values and using the Doppler effect, they measured the speed of each knot along the line of sight from Chandra to the remnant. They also used Chandra images obtained in 2000, 2004, 2006 and 2014 to detect changes in position of the knots and measure their speed perpendicular to our line of sight. These two measurements combined to give an estimate of each knot's true speed in three-dimensional space. A graphic gives a visual explanation for how motions of knots in the images and the X-ray spectra were combined to estimate the total speeds.

When An Unstoppable Force Meets an Immovable Object

The explosions of dying stars, known as supernovas, are some of the most powerful events in our entire universe, releasing more energy than the Sun will in its entire 10-billion-year lifetime. (The Sun is no small player, either—it produces the energy of nearly a trillion 1 megaton bombs every 10 seconds.)

The sheer power of a supernova explosion is enough to blast out debris at speeds of around 20 million miles per hour, generating shockwaves – pressure wavefronts that move faster than the speed of sound as they collide with surrounding gas and dust. As the shockwaves radiate outward into space, they dramatically heat this material up to temperatures of tens of millions of degrees, causing the supernova remnant to glow in X-rays.

Such immense, swift forces may seem completely unstoppable, but in the case of one supernova remnant in our Galaxy, G21.5-0.9, images from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory reveal that a mysterious presence was able to stop G21.5-0.9's shockwaves in their tracks.

Image of supernova remnant G21.5-0.9

Supernova remnant G21.5-0.9
(Credit: NASA/CXC/U.Manitoba/H.Matheson & S.Safi-Harb)

Stellar Explosions and Jets Showcased in New Three Dimensional Visualizations

Compilation of 3D Models
Credit: NASA/CXC/INAF-Osservatorio Astronomico di Palermo/Salvatore Orlando

Since ancient times, the study of astronomy has largely been limited to the flat, two-dimensional projection of what appears on the sky. However, just like a botanist puts a plant under a microscope or a paleontologist digs for fossils, astronomers want more "hands on" ways to visualize objects in space.

A new set of computer simulations represents an exciting step in that direction. Each is a three-dimensional (3D) visualization of an astronomical object based on data from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory and other X-ray observatories. While unable to fly to these distant objects and travel around them, astronomers have used data from these observatories to learn about the geometry, velocity, and other physical properties of each of these cosmic sources.

NASA's Great Observatories Help Astronomers Build a 3D Visualization of Exploded Star

In the year 1054 AD, Chinese sky watchers witnessed the sudden appearance of a "new star" in the heavens, which they recorded as six times brighter than Venus, making it the brightest observed stellar event in recorded history. This "guest star," as they described it, was so bright that people saw it in the sky during the day for almost a month. Native Americans also recorded its mysterious appearance in petroglyphs.

Observing the nebula with the largest telescope of the time, Lord Rosse in 1844 named the object the "Crab" because of its tentacle-like structure. But it wasn't until the 1900s that astronomers realized the nebula was the surviving relic of the 1054 supernova, the explosion of a massive star.

Now, astronomers and visualization specialists from the NASA's Universe of Learning program have combined the visible, infrared, and X-ray vision of NASA's Great Observatories to create a three-dimensional representation of the dynamic Crab Nebula. Certain structures and processes, driven by the pulsar engine at the heart of the nebula, are best seen at particular wavelengths.

Tycho's Supernova Remnant: The Clumpy and Lumpy Death of a Star

Image of Tycho's Supernova Remnant
Tycho's Supernova Remnant
Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO.; Optical: DSS

In 1572, Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe was among those who noticed a new bright object in the constellation Cassiopeia. Adding fuel to the intellectual fire that Copernicus started, Tycho showed this "new star" was far beyond the Moon, and that it was possible for the Universe beyond the Sun and planets to change. 

Astronomers now know that Tycho's new star was not new at all. Rather it signaled the death of a star in a supernova, an explosion so bright that it can outshine the light from an entire galaxy. This particular supernova was a Type Ia, which occurs when a white dwarf star pulls material from, or merges with, a nearby companion star until a violent explosion is triggered. The white dwarf star is obliterated, sending its debris hurtling into space.

The Latest Look at "First Light" from Chandra

Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/RIKEN/T. Sato et al.; Optical: NASA/STScI

Located about 11,000 light-years from Earth, Cas A (as it's nicknamed) is the glowing debris field left behind after a massive star exploded. When the star ran out of fuel, it collapsed onto itself and blew up as a supernova, possibly briefly becoming one of the brightest objects in the sky. (Although astronomers think that this happened around the year 1680, there are no verifiable historical records to confirm this.)

The shock waves generated by this blast supercharged the stellar wreckage and its environment, making the debris glow brightly in many types of light, particularly X-rays. Shortly after Chandra was launched aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia on July 23, 1999, astronomers directed the observatory to point toward Cas A. It was featured in Chandra's official “First Light” image, released Aug. 26, 1999, and marked a seminal moment not just for the observatory, but for the field of X-ray astronomy. Near the center of the intricate pattern of the expanding debris from the shattered star, the image revealed, for the first time, a dense object called a neutron star that the supernova left behind.

"Journey Through an Exploded Star" Opens

A new way to interact and explore Cassiopeia A, the remains of an exploded star, has launched. The press release below outlines this novel initiative between the Smithsonian Center for Learning and Digital Access and the Chandra X-ray Center. Led by Chandra’s Kimberly Arcand, this project allows you to watch, interact, or learn about this supernova remnant while delving into astrophysics, computer science, and more.

This online interactive version of Cas A (as it’s referred to) is one latest milestone with Chandra. Cas A was the “First Light” image that Chandra observed just weeks after being launched into space in 1999. In the nearly twenty years since, Chandra has repeatedly observed Cas A, revealing new secrets about this object from the neutron star at its center to the elements of life it has expelled.

A decade ago, a team of scientists and image processors came together and created the first-ever three-dimensional model of Cas A. Now, this 3D model enters a new phase with the launching of "Journey Through an Exploded Star"” We hope you will explore with us.

Chandra Serves up Cosmic Holiday Assortment

This is the season of celebrating, and the Chandra X-ray Center has prepared a platter of cosmic treats from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory to enjoy. This selection represents different types of objects — ranging from relatively nearby exploded stars to extremely distant and massive clusters of galaxies — that emit X-rays detected by Chandra. Each image in this collection blends Chandra data with other telescopes, creating a colorful medley of light from our Universe.

Angle Matters: A New Perspective on Neutron Star Collisions Solves an Old Mystery

Eleonora Troja
Eleonora Troja

We are very pleased to welcome Eleonora Troja as our guest blogger. She is an associate research scientist at the University of Maryland, College Park, with a joint appointment at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. She divides her time between her research on colliding neutron stars, directing the Swift Guest Investigator Program, and her three-year-old daughter, Bianca.

A year ago, on October 16th 2017, an amazing discovery was announced. GW170817, a collision of two neutron stars seen through gravitational waves and light, had realized the perfect union of two worlds. At the press conference organized by the National Science Foundation, a journalist asked an important question to the panelists: “Hadn’t we seen similar events before?” In that moment my mind ran back to an unusual gamma-ray burst, GRB150101B, localized by NASA’s Swift satellite nearly three years earlier.

GRB150101B was a flash of gamma-ray radiation that lasted for less than a fraction of a second. It was one of the weakest explosions ever seen with Swift, yet it was very luminous in X-rays and for a very long time. This was so unusual that Swift scientists were not sure whether the burst was a gamma ray burst (GRB) or another type of weird explosion, and dubbed it with a dual name GRB 150101B / SwiftJ123205.1-1056. I asked that NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory observe this object and help us unravel the mystery of its nature. Chandra revealed that there were two sources of X-ray light, not resolved by the Swift observations. A bright X-ray source was located at the center of the galaxy, probably indicating the presence of a supermassive black hole. Next to it, Chandra discovered a weaker X-ray signal coming from GRB150101B. At the same position, telescopes caught a glow of visible light which quickly faded away.


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