Supernovas & Supernova Remnants

Chandra Peers Into Densest and Weirdest Stars

Image of 3C 58
X#C 58
Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/ICE-CSIC/A. Marino et al.; Optical: SDSS; Image Processing: NASA/CXC/SAO/J. Major

The supernova remnant 3C 58 contains a spinning neutron star, known as PSR J0205+6449, at its center. Astronomers studied this neutron star and others like it to probe the nature of matter inside these very dense objects. A new study, made using NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and ESA’s XMM-Newton, reveals that the interiors of neutron stars may contain a type of ultra-dense matter not found anywhere else in the Universe.

In this image of 3C 58, low-energy X-rays are colored red, medium-energy X-rays are green, and the high-energy band of X-rays is shown in blue. The X-ray data have been combined with an optical image in yellow from the Digitized Sky Survey. The Chandra data show that the rapidly rotating neutron star (also known as a “pulsar”) at the center is surrounded by a torus of X-ray emission and a jet that extends for several light-years. The optical data shows stars in the field.

Stunning Echo of 800-year-old Explosion

Image of Supernova remnant 1181
SNR 1181 / Pa 30
Credit: X-ray: (Chandra) NASA/CXC/U. Manitoba/C. Treyturik, (XMM-Newton) ESA/C. Treyturik; Optical: (Pan-STARRS) NOIRLab/MDM/Dartmouth/R. Fesen; Infrared: (WISE) NASA/JPL/Caltech/; Image Processing: Univ. of Manitoba/Gilles Ferrand and Jayanne English

In the year 1181 a rare supernova explosion appeared in the night sky, staying visible for 185 consecutive days. Historical records show that the supernova looked like a temporary ‘star’ in the constellation Cassiopeia shining as bright as Saturn.

Ever since, scientists have tried to find the supernova’s remnant. At first it was thought that this could be the nebula around the pulsar — the dense core of a collapse star — named 3C 58. However closer investigations revealed that the pulsar is older than supernova 1181.

In the last decade, another contender was discovered; Pa 30 is a nearly circular nebula with a central star in the constellation Cassiopeia. It is pictured here combining images from several telescopes. This composite image uses data across the electromagnetic spectrum and shows a spectacular new view of the supernova remnant. This allows us to marvel at the same object that appeared in our ancestors’ night sky more than 800 years ago.

NASA's IXPE Helps Researchers Maximize 'Microquasar' Findings

Image of SS 433 and the Manatee Nebula
SS 433
Credit: X-ray: (IXPE): NASA/MSFC/IXPE; (Chandra): NASA/CXC/SAO; (XMM): ESA/XMM-Newton; IR: NASA/JPL/Caltech/WISE; Radio: NRAO/AUI/NSF/VLA/B. Saxton. (IR/Radio image created with data from M. Goss, et al.); Image Processing/compositing: NASA/CXC/SAO/N. Wolk & K. Arcand

This composite image of the Manatee Nebula captures the jet emanating from SS 433, a black hole pulling material inwards that is embedded in the supernova remnant which spawned it. Radio emission from the supernova remnant are blue-green, whereas the X-ray from IXPE, XMM-Newton and Chandra are highlighted in bright blue-purple and pink-white set against a backdrop of infrared data in red. The black hole emits twin jets of matter traveling in opposite directions at nearly the speed of light.

These jets distort the remnant’s shape into one astronomers dubbed the Manatee. The jets become bright about 100 light-years away from the black hole, where particles are accelerated to very high energies by shocks within the jet. The IXPE data shows that the magnetic field, which plays a key role in how particles are accelerated, is aligned parallel to the jet — aiding our understanding of how astrophysical jets accelerate these particles to high energies.

NASA Telescopes Chase Down "Green Monster" in Star's Debris

Image of Cassiopeia A
Cassiopeia A
Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO; Optical: NASA/ESA/STScI; IR: NASA/ESA/CSA/STScI/Milisavljevic et al., NASA/JPL/CalTech; Image Processing: NASA/CXC/SAO/J. Schmidt and K. Arcand

For the first time astronomers have combined data from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and James Webb Space Telescope to study the well-known supernova remnant Cassiopeia A (Cas A). As described in our latest press release, this work has helped explain an unusual structure in the debris from the destroyed star called the “Green Monster”, first discovered in Webb data in April 2023. The research has also uncovered new details about the explosion that created Cas A about 340 years ago, from Earth’s perspective.

X-raying the Magnetic Field Bones of the Cosmic Hand

Portrait style photo of Roger Romani. The man has somewhat close-cropped grayish hair and he's wearing a navy blue polo shirt.
Roger Romani

We welcome Roger W. Romani as a guest blogger. Roger is the first author of a paper that is the subject of our latest Chandra release. He has been a professor of Physics at Stanford University for 30-odd years and helped found KIPAC, its institute focusing on astrophysics and cosmology. He is interested in high energy astrophysics problems of all sorts and likes to bring observations from multiple wavebands together with modeling to explain astrophysical puzzles. However, he has a special fondness for the extreme physics conditions associated with pulsars and their environments. Today’s blog gives one such example.

Magnetic fields are the binding agent that turn interstellar atoms into gases. Between the stars the particle density is so low that, without these fields, individual atoms would fly along like buckshot, essentially never colliding. But since the atoms are often ionized – with a positive charge because negatively charged electrons have been stripped away – their interaction with embedded magnetic fields forces them to flow in concord, resulting in the fluid-like behavior that forms many of the nebulas that enthrall us in astronomical images.

It is surprisingly hard to image this magnetic scaffolding. A new capability for magnetic mapping was introduced with the launch of NASA’s Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE) in late 2021. This telescope is sensitive to 1-10 keV X-rays and, using an ingenious photo-electron tracking camera developed by our Italian colleagues, is able to sense the polarization, or orientation of the electric field in the electromagnetic wave, of the individual X-ray events. (An “eV” is an electron volt, a unit that represents how much energy an electron gains when it is accelerated by the potential of one volt. A “keV” is 1000 eV.) So together with its imaging, timing, and energy resolution capabilities, IXPE can, for the first time, extract (albeit imperfectly) all of the information carried by each X-ray photon. The result is a color movie of the target, which also shows how the local emission is polarized.

IXPE and Chandra Untangle Theories Surrounding Historic Supernova Remnant

Image of SN 1006
SN 1006 in X-ray and Optical Light
Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO (Chandra); NASA/MSFC/Nanjing Univ./P. Zhou et al. (IXPE); IR: NASA/JPL/CalTech/Spitzer; Image Processing: NASA/CXC/SAO/J.Schmidt

When the object now called SN 1006 first appeared on May 1, 1006 A.D., it was far brighter than Venus and visible during the daytime for weeks. Astronomers in China, Japan, Europe, and the Arab world all documented this spectacular sight, which was later understood to have been a supernova. With the advent of the Space Age in the 1960s, scientists were able to launch instruments and detectors above Earth's atmosphere to observe the Universe in wavelengths that are blocked from the ground, including X-rays. The remains of SN 1006 was one of the faintest X-ray sources detected by the first generation of X-ray satellites.

This new image shows SN 1006 from two of NASA’s current X-ray telescopes, the Chandra X-ray Observatory and Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE). In the full image of SN 1006, red, green, and blue show low-, medium-, and high-energy detected by Chandra. The IXPE data, which measure the polarization of the X-ray light, have been added in the upper left corner of the remnant in purple. The lines in that corner represent the direction of the magnetic field.

Chandra’s Sight Sheds New Light: Gathering Insight on Earth, Life, and the X-ray Bright

A selfie-style picture of a man in sunglasses and a winter hat with a snowscape and mountains behind him. He has a handheld radio attached to the harness on his chest. Other people are in the background using trekking poles. The sun is shining brightly.
Ian Brunton.

We welcome Ian Brunton, a research scientist currently at NASA Johnson Space Center in the Astromaterials Research and Exploration Science Division as our guest blogger. In this post, he describes his team’s work below on the effects that a nearby supernova may have on an Earth-like planet and its biosphere. Ian first became involved with this area of research as an astronomy student of Brian Fields at the University of Illinois. He will soon be continuing his academic studies as a PhD student at Caltech in the Division of Geological and Planetary Sciences.

Much has been said about the extraordinary advancements throughout the field of astronomy, particularly regarding the innovative ways in which we can now observe the universe across the electromagnetic spectrum. Chandra has of course been one of the instruments at the forefront of this exploration for the last couple of decades, illuminating the universe in the X-ray band. These new ways of looking at our universe have served to confirm, alter, or entirely upend our prior notions of certain astrophysical processes.

What I personally find most intriguing is how these new observations can then be integrated into the knowledge and pursuits of other scientific disciplines, be it planetary science, atmospheric chemistry, geology, etc.

One of the most fascinating processes (if I may say so myself…) that orbital X-ray telescopes are especially handy for are supernovae, i.e., exploding stars! I’ll elaborate a bit on exactly why below, but first, some background on nearby supernovae and Earth is needed since our project really builds upon a lot of previous work in the field.

Everyone loves a good astronomical explosion, and supernovae — typically characterized by the wondrous spectacle of their initial outbursts — are some of the best explosions in the known universe. In the blink of an eye, these monstrous events can outshine the entire combined output of stars in a galaxy, launching neutrinos, photons, and stellar material out into the abyss of the interstellar medium.

Unlocking the Mysteries of the Historic Tycho Supernova

Image of Tycho's Supernova Remnant
Tycho's Supernova Remnant
Credit: X-ray (IXPE: NASA/ASI/MSFC/INAF/R. Ferrazzoli, et al.), (Chandra: NASA/CXC/RIKEN & GSFC/T. Sato et al.) Optical: DSS, Image processing: NASA/CXC/SAO/K. Arcand, L. Frattare & N. Wolk

This image provides a new look at the Tycho supernova remnant, named for Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe who noticed the bright glow of this new “star” in the constellation Cassiopeia more than 450 years ago. Astronomers used NASA’S Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE) to study polarized light from Tycho, the debris from an exploded star, as described in IXPE’s latest press release. IXPE revealed, for the first time, the geometry of the magnetic fields close to the supernova’s blast wave, which is still propagating from the initial explosion and forms a boundary around the ejected material. Understanding the magnetic field geometry allows scientists to further investigate how particles are accelerated there.

In this composite image, data from IXPE (dark purple and white) have been combined with those from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory (red and blue), which were overlaid with the stars in the field of view seen by the Digitized Sky Survey.

NASA's IXPE Helps Unlock the Secrets of Famous Exploded Star

X-ray and optical of Cassiopeia A
Cassiopeia A
Credit: X-ray: Chandra: NASA/CXC/SAO, IXPE: NASA/MSFC/J. Vink et al.; Optical: NASA/STScI

For the first time, astronomers have measured and mapped polarized X-rays from the remains of an exploded star, using NASA’s Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE). The findings, which come from observations of a stellar remnant called Cassiopeia A, shed new light on the nature of young supernova remnants, which accelerate particles close to the speed of light.

Launched on Dec. 9, 2021, IXPE, a collaboration between NASA and the Italian Space Agency, is the first satellite that can measure the polarization of X-ray light with this level of sensitivity and clarity.

All forms of light — from radio waves to gamma rays — can be polarized. Unlike the polarized sunglasses we use to cut the glare from sunlight bouncing off a wet road or windshield, IXPE’s detectors maps the tracks of incoming X-ray light. Scientists can use these individual track records to figure out the polarization, which tells the story of what the X-rays went through.

Cassiopeia A (Cas A for short) was the first object IXPE observed after it began collecting data. One of the reasons Cas A was selected is that its shock waves — like a sonic boom generated by a jet — are some of the fastest in the Milky Way. The shock waves were generated by the supernova explosion that destroyed a massive star after it collapsed. Light from the blast swept past Earth more than three hundred years ago.

Setting the Clock on a Stellar Explosion

Image of SNR 0519-69.0
Supernova Remnant 0519-69.0
Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/GSFC/B. J. Williams et al.; Optical: NASA/ESA/STScI

While astronomers have seen the debris from scores of exploded stars in the Milky Way and nearby galaxies, it is often difficult to determine the timeline of the star’s demise. By studying the spectacular remains of a supernova in a neighboring galaxy using NASA telescopes, a team of astronomers has found enough clues to help wind back the clock.

The supernova remnant called SNR 0519-69.0 (SNR 0519 for short) is the debris from an explosion of a white dwarf star. After reaching a critical mass, either by pulling matter from a companion star or merging with another white dwarf, the star underwent a thermonuclear explosion and was destroyed. Scientists use this type of supernova, called a Type Ia, for a wide range of scientific studies ranging from studies of thermonuclear explosions to measuring distances to galaxies across billions of light-years.


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