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NASA'S Chandra Finds New Evidence on Origin of Supernovas

For Release: April 26, 2011


Credit: NASA/CXC/Chinese Academy of Sciences/F. Lu et al
Press Image and Caption

CAMBRIDGE, Ma. -- Astronomers may now know the cause of an historic supernova explosion that is an important type of object for investigating dark energy in the universe. The discovery, made using NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory, also provides strong evidence that a star can survive the explosive impact generated when a companion star goes supernova.

The new study examined the remnant of a supernova observed by the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe in 1572. The object, dubbed Tycho for short, was formed by a Type Ia supernova, a category of stellar explosion useful in measuring astronomical distances because of their reliable brightness. Type Ia supernovas have been used to determine that the universe is expanding at an accelerating rate, an effect attributed to the prevalence of an invisible, repulsive force throughout space called dark energy.

A team of researchers analyzed a deep Chandra observation of Tycho and found an arc of X-ray emission in the supernova remnant. Evidence supports the conclusion that a shock wave created the arc when a white dwarf exploded and blew material off the surface of a nearby companion star.

"There has been a long-standing question about what causes Type Ia supernovas," said Fangjun Lu of the Institute of High Energy Physics, Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing. "Because they are used as steady beacons of light across vast distances, it is critical to understand what triggers them."

One popular scenario for Type Ia supernovas involves the merger of two white dwarfs. In this case, no companion star or evidence for material blasted off a companion should exist. In the other main competing theory, a white dwarf pulls material from a "normal," or sun-like, companion star until a thermonuclear explosion occurs. Both scenarios may actually occur under different conditions, but the latest Chandra result from Tycho supports the latter one.

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In addition, the Tycho study seems to show the remarkable resiliency of stars, as the supernova explosion appears to have blasted very little material off the companion star. Previously, studies with optical telescopes have revealed a star within the remnant that is moving much more quickly than its neighbors, hinting that it could be the missing companion.

"It looks like this companion star was right next to an extremely powerful explosion and it survived relatively unscathed," said Q. Daniel Wang of the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. "Presumably it was also given a kick when the explosion occurred. Together with the orbital velocity, this kick makes the companion now travel rapidly across space."

Using the properties of the X-ray arc and the candidate stellar companion, the team determined the orbital period and separation between the two stars in the binary system before the explosion. The period was estimated to be about 5 days, and the separation was only about a millionth of a light year, or less than a tenth the distance between the Sun and the Earth. In comparison, the remnant itself is about 20 light years across.

Other details of the arc support the idea that it was blasted away from the companion star. For example, the X-ray emission of the remnant shows an apparent "shadow" next to the arc, consistent with the blocking of debris from the explosion by the expanding cone of material stripped from the companion.

"This stripped stellar material was the missing piece of the puzzle for arguing that Tycho's supernova was triggered in a binary with a normal stellar companion," said Lu. "We now seem to have found this piece."

The shape of the arc is different from any other feature seen in the remnant. Other features in the interior of the remnant include recently announced stripes, which have a different shape and are thought to be features in the outer blast wave caused by cosmic ray acceleration.

These results will appear in the May 1st issue of The Astrophysical Journal. The other authors of the paper include M.Y. Ge, J.L. Qu, S.J. Zheng and Y. Chen from the Institute of High Energy Physics, and X.J. Yang from Xiangtan University. NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., manages the Chandra program for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory controls Chandra's science and flight operations from Cambridge, Mass.

More information, including images and other multimedia, can be found at:

Media contacts:
Megan Watzke
Chandra X-ray Center, Cambridge, Mass.

Visitor Comments (15)

Keep following this type of supernovas it's so interesting and they are one of the most powerful phenomenons in the universe and at the end thanks a lot Chandra

Posted by NASAFan on Friday, 10.3.14 @ 11:26am

I had no clue that stars could explode!! o.o

Posted by Sarita on Friday, 05.17.13 @ 09:57am

Brilliant article & imagery. Makes me wish I was an astrophysicist. Thank you for posting and explaining this fascinating discovery for all to see.
Space is indeed the final frontier!

Posted by Bryan on Thursday, 11.3.11 @ 13:51pm

Amazing!! How wonderful is the Universe.

Posted by Pax on Tuesday, 07.19.11 @ 05:15am

Extremely concise, precise, well-written and explanatory text, with meaningful links.

Posted by Pierre Maes on Tuesday, 05.24.11 @ 20:50pm

Does it not have angular momentum? The clouds are not layered. Photo pond splash ripples, some of the interior ripples undergo entropy, the rest undergoes expansion contraction. For some objects.

Posted by J. J. Madson on Friday, 05.13.11 @ 22:04pm

What is the size of this object in kilometers?

Posted by DNA on Saturday, 04.30.11 @ 21:30pm

We live in the wondrous time of space exploration. We get to see some of the most astonishing sights of this amazing universe we are a part of, a very small part.
Thanks for the great visuals

Posted by G T White on Saturday, 04.30.11 @ 14:32pm

Thanks for the beautiful work and explanation clear enough for a humanities teacher to understand. By the way, I saw this through APOD.

Posted by G. Woodruff on Saturday, 04.30.11 @ 08:22am

What is the pin-point object in the upper left part of the image. Surely a SN-Ia doesn't leave a neutron star, and the image is made from detections in X-ray so it would have to be an x-ray bright object.

Posted by Excalibur on Saturday, 04.30.11 @ 08:10am


Posted by Spock on Saturday, 04.30.11 @ 07:58am

The most amazing thing I've seen in weeks. I learned a huge amount from your informative well written and well illustrated page.
Thank you

Posted by Peter Beck on Saturday, 04.30.11 @ 03:18am


Posted by sao on Friday, 04.29.11 @ 13:13pm

My first thought when I looked at the remnant of the supernova was my neighbors 3 year old son Charlie
fifty years ago. The little boy had curly hair and this really floored me. I have Chandra reports that are very interesting and I have many discussions based on your info and pictures sent to me. Friends who never showed interest in anything in space other than the NASA flights have become weekend panelist on Chandra submissions.
Thank U

Posted by Len Gyson on Friday, 04.29.11 @ 10:53am

Most interesting discovery. Ever since the space telescopes were put into orbit, so much has been discovered about this most marvelous universe we live in.
The new discoveries never cease to blow my mind. Eagerly awaiting the next mind blowing discovery.

Marvin L. S.

Posted by Marvin L. S. on Tuesday, 04.26.11 @ 20:34pm