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A stellar dust factory

STRIKING NEW OBSERVATIONS with the Atacama Large Millimetre/submillimetre Array (ALMA) telescope capture, for the first time, the remains of a recent supernova brimming with freshly formed dust. If enough of this dust makes the perilous transition into interstellar space, it could explain how many galaxies acquired their dusty, dusky appearance.

Cosmic dust consists of silicate and graphite grains – minerals also abundant on Earth. The soot from a candle is very similar to cosmic graphite dust, although the size of the grains in the soot are ten or more times bigger than typical grain sizes of cosmic graphite grains.

This image shows the remnant of Supernova 1987A

This image shows the remnant of Supernova 1987A seen in light of very different wavelengths. ALMA data (in red) shows newly formed dust in the middle of the remnant. Hubble Space Telescope (in green) and Chandra Space Observatory (in blue) data show the expanding shock wave. Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO) / A. Angelich. Visible light image: the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. X-Ray image: The NASA Chandra X-Ray Observatory

Galaxies can be remarkably dusty places and supernovae – exploded stars – are thought to be a primary source of that dust, especially in the early universe. But direct evidence of a supernova’s dust-making capabilities has been slim up to now, and could not account for the copious amount of dust detected in young, distant galaxies. But now observations with ALMA are changing that.

An international team of astronomers used ALMA to observe the glowing remains of Supernova 1987A, which is in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a dwarf galaxy orbiting the Milky Way about 160,000 light-years from Earth. SN 1987A is the closest observed supernova explosion since Johannes Kepler’s observation of a supernova inside the Milky Way in 1604. Being far in the southern sky, it is clearly visible only from the Southern Hemisphere.

The Tarantula Nebula and its surroundings

This is an image of the Tarantula Nebula and its surroundings in the Large Magellanic Cloud galaxy, taken in 1987. Supernova 1987A is the bright star just to the right of centre. Credit: ESO

“This is the first time we’ve been able to really image where the dust has formed, which is important in understanding the evolution of galaxies,” said Remy Indebetouw, an astronomer at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) and the University of Virginia, both in Charlottesville, USA

Astronomers predicted that as the gas cooled after the explosion, large amounts of dust would form as atoms of oxygen, carbon, and silicon bonded together in the cold central regions of the remnant. However, earlier observations of SN 1987A with infrared telescopes, made during the first 500 days after the explosion, detected only a small amount of hot dust.

With ALMA’s resolution and sensitivity, the team was able to image the far more abundant cold dust, which glows brightly in millimetre and submillimetre light. The astronomers estimate that the remnant cloud now contains about 25 percent the mass of the Sun in newly formed dust. They also found that significant amounts of carbon monoxide and silicon monoxide have formed.

Aerial view of dishes of the Atacama Large Millimetre/submillimetre Array

Aerial view of dishes of the Atacama Large Millimetre/submillimetre Array (ALMA) telescope. Credit: ALMA

“SN 1987A is a special place since it hasn’t mixed with the surrounding environment, so what we see there was made there,” said Indebetouw. “The new ALMA results, which are the first of their kind, reveal a supernova remnant chock full of material that simply did not exist a few decades ago.”

There’s more information on Supernova 1987A, including an interview with Australian astronomers, on the ABC’s web site.

Adapted from information issued by NRAO.

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The Crab Nebula

WHEN A MASSIVE STAR EXPLODES at the end of its life, the shattered remains become known as a supernova remnant. The one shown here is called the Crab Nebula.

This is a composite view produced with data from two telescopes: the Herschel Space Observatory and the Hubble Space Telescope. Herschel is a European Space Agency (ESA) mission with important NASA contributions, and Hubble is a NASA mission with important ESA contributions.

A wispy and filamentary cloud of gas and dust, the Crab Nebula is the remnant of a supernova explosion that was observed by Chinese astronomers in the year 1054.

The Crab Nebula

A new view of the Crab Nebula, a supernova remnant, using data gathered by the Herschel Space Observatory and the Hubble Space Telescope.

The image combines Hubble’s view of the nebula at visible wavelengths, obtained using three different filters sensitive to the emission from oxygen and sulphur ions (both shown here in blue). Herschel’s far-infrared image (shown here in red) reveals the emission from dust in the nebula.

While studying the dust content of the Crab Nebula with Herschel, a team of astronomers have detected emission lines from argon hydride, a molecular ion containing the noble gas argon. This is the first detection of a noble-gas based compound in space.

At the heart of the nebula is the Crab Pulsar, a rapidly spinning neutron star that emits a beam of radio waves. As the pulsar spins, the beam sweeps across the field of view as seen from Earth (a pure fluke, as it could have been pointed in any other direction).

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Words and image adapted from information issued by ESA / Herschel / PACS / MESS Key Programme Supernova Remnant  Team; NASA, ESA and Allison Loll / Jeff Hester (Arizona State University).

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Gallery: Supernova remnant B0049-73.6

THE PRECISE DETAILS of how massive stars explode at the end of their lives – a process known as a supernova – remains one of the biggest questions in astrophysics.

Located in the neighbouring galaxy of the Small Magellanic Cloud, this false-colour image shows the aftermath of such a supernova – an enormous, expanding debris cloud called a supernova remnant.

SNR B0049-73.6

Chandra X-ray Observatory image of supernova remnant SNR B0049-73.6, the aftermath of a stellar explosion. Image credit: X-ray: NASA / CXC / Drew Univ. / S.Hendrick et al, Infrared: 2MASS / Umass / IPAC-Caltech / NASA / NSF

Known only by its catalogue number, SNR B0049-73.6, it provides astronomers with an excellent example with which to study the after effects of a supernova. Chandra observations of the motions and composition of the debris from the explosion support the view that the explosion was produced by the collapse of the core of a star.

In this image, X-rays from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory satellite (purple) are combined with infrared data from the 2MASS survey (red, green, and blue).

More information and downloadable wallpapers images: nasa.gov/mission_pages/chandra/multimedia/small-magellanic-cloud-supernova-remnant.html

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Ancient supernova seen in a new light

RCW 86

This is all that remains of a supernova explosion that was seen by Chinese astronomers in the year 185 CE. The remnant gas cloud is called RCW 86, and is approximately 8,000 light-years from Earth.

A TWISTED AND TANGLED GAS CLOUD is all that remains of the oldest documented example of a supernova, called RCW 86.

Chinese stargazers witnessed the event in 185 CE, documenting a mysterious ‘guest star’ that remained in the sky for eight months.

The image combines data from four different space telescopes to create a multi-wavelength view.

X-ray images from the European Space Agency’s XMM-Newton Observatory and NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory are combined to form the blue and green colours in the image. The X-rays show the interstellar gas that has been heated to millions of degrees by the passage of the shock wave from the supernova.

Infrared data from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, as well as NASA’s Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) are shown in yellow and red, and reveal dust radiating at a temperature of several hundred degrees below zero, warm by comparison to normal dust in our Milky Way galaxy.

By studying the X-ray and infrared data together, astronomers were able to determine that the cause of the explosion witnessed nearly 2,000 years ago was a Type Ia supernova, in which an otherwise-stable white dwarf, or dead star, was pushed beyond the brink of stability when a companion star dumped material onto it.

Furthermore, scientists used the data to solve another mystery surrounding the remnant—how it got to be so big in such a short amount of time.

By blowing out a ‘wind’ prior to exploding, the white dwarf was able to clear out a huge ‘cavity,’ a region of very low-density surrounding the system. The explosion was able to expand into this cavity much faster than it otherwise would have.

RCW 86 is approximately 8,000 light-years away.

Adapted from information issued by NASA / JPL-Caltech / B. Williams (NCSU).

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Take a tour of the Crab Nebula

THE CRAB NEBULA IS ONE OF THE BRIGHTEST sources of high-energy radiation in the sky. Little wonder—it’s the expanding remains of an exploded star, a supernova seen in 1054.

Scientists have used virtually every telescope at their disposal, including NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, to study the Crab.

The supernova left behind a magnetised neutron star—a pulsar. It’s about the size of Washington DC, but it spins 30 times per second. Each rotation sweeps a lighthouse-like beam past us, creating a pulse of electromagnetic energy detectable across the spectrum.

The pulsar in the Crab Nebula is among the brightest sources of high-energy gamma rays. Recently, NASA’s Fermi Gamma Ray Observatory and Italy’s AGILE Satellite detected strong gamma-ray flares from the Crab, including a series of “superflares” in April 2011.

To help pinpoint the location of these flares, astronomers enlisted Chandra space telescope.

With its keen X-ray eyes, Chandra saw lots of activity, but none of it seems correlated with the superflare. This hints that whatever is causing the flares is happening with about a third of a light-year from the pulsar. And rapid changes in the rise and fall of gamma rays imply that the emission region is very small, comparable in size to our Solar System.

The Chandra observations will likely help scientists to home in on an explanation of the gamma-ray flares one day.

Even after a thousand years, the heart of this shattered star still offers scientists glimpses of staggering energies and cutting edge science.

Adapted from information issued by Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics. Still image courtesy (X-ray) NASA / CXC / SAO / F.Seward, (optical) NASA / ESA / ASU / J.Hester & A.Loll, (infrared) NASA / JPL-Caltech / Univ. Minn. / R.Gehrz.

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Happy birthday, Crab Nebula!

Crab Nebula

The Crab Nebula is a supernova remnant, the aftermath of a titanic stellar explosion that was seen on Earth in the year 1054 CE.

ALMOST A THOUSAND YEARS AGO, on July 4 in the year 1054 CE, astronomers in China and the Middle East noticed a bright new star in the night sky. It appeared in the constellation Taurus, and remained visible for roughly two years.

They couldn’t have known what it really was—a supernova, a titanic stellar explosion that occurred when a massive star reached the end of its life. The explosion was matched by an implosion, which crushed the star’s core and produced a neutron star—made of matter so dense that the atoms’ electrons were forced into their nuclei and combined with the protons to form more neutrons.

The density is so high, that a teaspoon of neutron star material has as much mass as 900 Great Pyramids.

And the neutron star is spinning, making it a pulsar…so called because the natural radiation it emits is sent out along beams, which sweep across our field of view like a lighthouse, seeming to pulse on and off.

So much for the implosion. The explosion hurled enormous quantities of gas into space, eventually forming the glowing cloud, or supernova remnant, we see today. On early photographs, which didn’t show much detail, the nebula looked very crab-like, hence its name.

The distance to the Crab Nebula is a bit uncertain, but it’s probably around 6,300 light-years away. And the cloud is expanding at a speed of 1,500 kilometres per second!

Download a 1280 x 1280 wallpaper image of the Crab Nebula here.

Story by Jonathan Nally. Image courtesy NASA, ESA and Allison Loll/Jeff Hester (Arizona State University). Image acknowledgement: Davide De Martin (ESA/Hubble).

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Blast from the past glows anew

Hubble image of SN 1987A

This Hubble Space Telescope image of SN 1987A shows an odd-shaped central blob of debris from the exploded star, which has now begun to brighten. The brightening is due to illumination by X-rays coming from the surrounding ring of hot gas.

IN 1987, LIGHT FROM AN EXPLODING STAR in a neighbouring galaxy, the Large Magellanic Cloud, reached Earth. Named Supernova 1987A, it was the closest supernova explosion witnessed in almost 400 years, and its proximity has enabled astronomers to study it in unprecedented detail as it evolves.

A team of astronomers has now announced that the supernova debris, which had been fading over the years, is now brightening. This shows that a different “power source” has begun to light up the debris, and marks its transition from a supernova to a supernova remnant.

“Supernova 1987A has become the youngest supernova remnant visible to us,” said Robert Kirshner of the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics (CfA).

Kirshner leads a long-term study of SN 1987A with NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope. Since its launch in 1990, Hubble has provided a continuous record of the changes in SN 1987A.

A new power source

SN 1987A is surrounded by a ring of gas that blew off the progenitor star thousands of years before it exploded. The ring is about one light-year (10 trillion kilometres) across. Inside that ring, the “guts” of the star are rushing outward in an expanding debris cloud.

Most of a supernova’s light comes from radioactive decay of elements created in the explosion. As a result, it fades over time. However, the debris from SN 1987A has begun to brighten, suggesting that a new power source is lighting it.

Supernova 1987A

Supernova 1987A was the closest exploding star seen in almost 400 years. Astronomers are continuing with long-term studies of it.

“It’s only possible to see this brightening because SN 1987A is so close and Hubble has such sharp vision,” Kirshner said.

A supernova remnant consists of material ejected from an exploding star, as well as the pre-existing material the blast wave sweeps up.

The outflowing debris from SN 1987A is beginning to crash into the surrounding gas ring, creating powerful shock waves that generate X-rays, which have been detected by NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory. Those X-rays are illuminating the debris, and shock heating is making it glow.

The same process powers other well-known supernova remnants in our galaxy, such as Cassiopeia A.

Change you can see

Because it’s so young, the remnant of SN 1987A still shows the history of the last few thousand years of the star’s life recorded in the knots and whorls of gas. By studying it further, astronomers may decode that history.

“Young supernova remnants have personality,” Kirshner agreed.

Eventually, that history will be lost when the bulk of the expanding stellar debris hits the surrounding ring and shreds it. Until then, SN 1987A continues to offer an unprecedented opportunity to watch a cosmic object change over the course of a human lifetime. Few other objects in the sky evolve on such short time-scales.

Adapted from information issued by the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics. Images courtesy NASA / P. Challis (CfA) / David Malin (AAO).

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The Case of the Cosmic Crab

A NEW MOVIE FROM NASA’S Chandra X-ray Observatory shows a sequence of images of the Crab Nebula, taken over an interval of seven months and showing dramatic variations.

The Crab Nebula is one of the most famous objects in the sky. It is the remnant cloud from a supernova (exploding star) that was seen by astronomers in China and other countries in the year 1054.

At the centre of the nebula is a pulsar, a rapidly spinning neutron star. It has a mass greater than our Sun but is only tens of kilometres wide, and is spinning at the rate of 30 times per second.

The pulsar’s spin is gradually slowing down, and as it does so large amounts of energy are injected into its surroundings. In particular, a high-speed wind of matter and anti-matter particles ploughs into the surrounding nebula, creating a shock wave that forms the expanding ‘ring’ seen in the movie.

In addition, ‘jets’ shooting out from the poles of the pulsar spew X-ray emitting matter and antimatter particles in a direction at right angles to the ring.

The goal of the latest Chandra observations was to pinpoint the location of remarkable flares spotted by NASA’s Fermi Gamma Ray Observatory satellite and Italy’s AGILE satellite.

A strong gamma-ray flare was detected from the Crab in September 2010, followed by an even stronger series of “superflares” in April 2011. The gamma-ray satellites were not able to locate the source of the flares within the nebula, but it was hoped that Chandra, with its high-resolution images, would.

Scientists have put together a short sequence of the images taken by Chandra, showing the remarkable changes in the nebula:

Chandra began observing the Crab on monthly intervals beginning six days after the discovery of the gamma-ray flare in September 2010. This established a baseline of seven images before the superflare was seen last month.

What was unexpected, though, was that nothing significant showed up in the Chandra observations as compared with the Fermi observations. Astronomers are now trying to figure out why that is so.

One possible explanation is that the gamma-ray flares picked up by Fermi happened very close to the pulsar, in which case they would have been missed by Chandra, because the Crab pulsar is so bright that the detectors are in essence “overexposed” so variations from that region cannot be observed. (Note that in the movie an artificial source of constant brightness is included to show the position of the pulsar.)

Adapted from information issued by CXC. Crab Nebula image courtesy (X-ray) NASA / CXC / SAO / F. Seward; (optical) NASA / ESA / ASU / J. Hester & A. Loll; (infrared) NASA / JPL-Caltech / Univ. Minn. / R. Gehrz.

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Hubble’s cosmic bauble

Hubble image of SNR B0509-67.5

This delicate shell formed as the expanding blast wave and ejected material from a supernova (an exploding star) tore through the surrounding interstellar gas. It is located in the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC), a small galaxy about 160 000 light-years from Earth.

  • Expanding shell of gas from an exploded star
  • Explosion occurred about 400 years ago
  • Image made from combined Hubble images

Hubble has spotted a festive bauble of gas in our neighbouring galaxy, the Large Magellanic Cloud. Formed in the aftermath of a supernova explosion that took place four centuries ago, this sphere of gas has been snapped in a series of observations made between 2006 and 2010.

The delicate shell, photographed by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, appears to float serenely in the depths of space, but this apparent calm hides an inner turmoil. The gaseous envelope formed as the expanding blast wave and ejected material from a supernova tore through the nearby interstellar medium.

Called SNR B0509-67.5 (or SNR 0509 for short), the bubble is the visible remnant of a powerful stellar explosion in the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC), a small galaxy about 160,000 light-years from Earth.

Ripples seen in the shell’s surface may be caused either by subtle variations in the density of the ambient interstellar gas, or possibly be driven from the interior by fragments from the initial explosion.

The bubble-shaped shroud of gas is 23 light-years across and is expanding at more than 18 million km/h.

Hubble and Chandra image of SNR B0509-67.5

The Hubble images overlaid with data (green) from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory that show where the gas is so hot that it emits high-powered X-rays. The bubble-shaped shroud of gas is 23 light-years across and is expanding at more than 18 million km/h.

Astronomers have concluded that the explosion was an example of an especially energetic and bright variety of supernova. Known as Type Ia, such supernova events are thought to result when a white dwarf star in a binary system robs its partner of gas, taking on more mass than it is able to handle, so that it eventually explodes.

Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys observed the supernova remnant on 28 October 2006 with a filter that isolates light from the glowing hydrogen seen in the expanding shell. These observations were then combined with visible-light images of the surrounding star field that were imaged with Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 on 4 November 2010.

With an age of about 400 years, the supernova might have been visible to Southern Hemisphere observers around the year 1600, although there are no known records of a “new star” in the direction of the LMC near that time.

A much more recent supernova in the LMC, SN 1987A, did catch the eye of Earth viewers and continues to be studied with ground- and space-based telescopes, including Hubble.

Adapted from information issued by the ESA–Hubble Information Centre. Image credit: NASA / ESA / Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA) / CXC / SAO. Acknowledgement: J. Hughes (Rutgers University).

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3D view of exploding star

Artist’s impression of the material surrounding SN1987A

This artist’s impression of the material around a recently exploded star, known as Supernova 1987A (or SN 1987A), is based on observations which have for the first time revealed a three dimensional view of the distribution of the expelled material. This image shows the different elements present in SN 1987A: two outer rings, one inner ring and the deformed, innermost expelled material.

Astronomers using European Southern Observatory’s (ESO) Very Large Telescope (VLT) have for the first time obtained a three-dimensional view of the distribution of the innermost material expelled by a recently exploded star.

The original blast was not only powerful, according to the new results. It was also more concentrated in one particular direction.

This is a strong indication that the supernova must have been very turbulent, supporting the most recent computer models.

Unlike the Sun, which will die rather quietly, massive stars arriving at the end of their brief life explode as supernovae, hurling out a vast quantity of material.

An animation showing a 3D view of the supernova remnant.

An animation showing a 3D view of the supernova remnant.

In this class, Supernova 1987A (SN 1987A) in the nearby Large Magellanic Cloud galaxy occupies a very special place. Seen in 1987, it was the first supernova for 383 years bright enough to be seen in the sky with just the naked eye.

Because of its relative closeness, it has been possible for astronomers to study the explosion of a massive star and its aftermath in more detail than ever before.

SN 1987A has been a bonanza for astrophysicists. It provided several notable observational ‘firsts’: the detection of neutrinos from the collapsing inner stellar core triggering the explosion; the identification on archival photographic plates of the star before it exploded; the signs of a lopsided explosion; the direct observation of the radioactive elements produced during the blast; observation of the formation of dust in the supernova, as well as the detection of the gas surrounding the star.

A lopsided blast

New observations making use of a unique instrument, SINFONI, on the VLT have provided even deeper knowledge of this amazing event, as astronomers have now been able to make the first-ever 3D reconstruction of the central parts of the exploding material.

This view shows that the explosion was stronger and faster in some directions than others, leading to an irregular shape with some parts stretching out further into space.

Time sequence of Hubble images of SN1987A

A time sequence of Hubble Space Telescope images, taken in the 9 years from 1994 to 2003, showing the collision of the expanding supernova blast with a ring of dense material flung off by the star 20,000 years before it exploded.

The first material to be ejected from the explosion travelled at an incredible 100 million km per hour, which is about a tenth of the speed of light or around 100,000 times faster than a passenger jet.

Even at this breakneck speed it has taken the blast 10 years to reach a previously existing ring of gas and dust puffed out much earlier from the dying star. The images also demonstrate that another blast wave is travelling ten times more slowly and is being heated by radioactive elements created in the explosion.

“We have established the velocity distribution of the inner ejecta of Supernova 1987A,” says lead author Karina Kjær. “Just how a supernova explodes is not very well understood, but the way the star exploded is imprinted on this inner material. We can see that this material was not ejected symmetrically in all directions, but rather seems to have had a preferred direction. Besides, this direction is different to what was expected from the position of the ring.”

Such asymmetric behaviour was predicted by some of the most recent computer models of supernovae, which found that large-scale instabilities occur during the explosion. The new observations are thus the first direct confirmation of such models.

Adapted from information issued by ESO / L. Calçada.

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