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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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