Supernova Remnants: Now and Then, and Eye Candy

When I had satisfied myself that no star of that kind had ever shone before, I was led into such perplexity by the unbelievability of the thing that I began to doubt the faith of my own eyes.
Tycho Brahe

One of the great things that the Hubble Space Telescope has given us is a whole slew of images of supernovae and remnant of past supernovae, from recent ones like SN 1987a

to supernovae that are hundreds of years old, like Tycho Brahe’s supernova from 1572. In fact, Hubble is so powerful that it actually found the companion star that resulted in the Supernova exploding in the first place!

But one of the remarkable things about these supernovae is that their outer layers — the gases blown off by the explosion — are still expanding!

Let me introduce you to the first supernova ever recorded in human history: the supernova of 1006!

These gases are hot, and so are best viewed by an X-ray telescope; Chandra was the one that snapped the above image. But there are ribbons of gas that glow at the right temperature that they emit visible light, and the Hubble space telescope can see them! Take a look for yourself. (And, like all the images in this post, click for a huge, full-screen version.)

Hubble took this picture in 2006, and it’s awfully pretty (and will remind some of you of Star Trek: Generations). The ribbon of gas is about 7,200 light years away, which makes imaging it in any detail an amazing feat!

But what’s remarkable about this ribbon is that a different large telescope, CTIO, imaged it back in 1998, eight years prior. And what do you suppose we see if we overlay those two images on top of one another?

The ribbon is moving, and quickly! (Remember, it’s 7,200 light years away!) It must be moving awfully quickly to notice a change in its position over just eight years, and what did we find? Exactly what we’d expect: the ribbon is expanding away from the center of the explosion!

Not exactly a groundbreaking find, but a wonderful confirmation that this catastrophic event, which will trigger the formation of many new stars, works exactly the way we think it does, all while giving you your choice of fantastic desktop wallpapers!

So enjoy a light Friday, and I hope your weekend is a blast!