Chandra Sees Old Supernova In A New Light

Credits: NASA/CXC/Middlebury College/F.Winklerch

Over a thousand years ago, astronomers in China, Japan, Europe were in awe as a new “light” graced the sky. Brighter than Venus and visible for weeks during  daylight hours.The phenomenon appeared on May 1, 1006 AD and went into astronomical history. Now, in celebration of the 50th anniversary of x-ray astronomy, astronomers are taking another look at SN 1006. 

During the beginning of the “Space Age” in the 1960’s, scientists first became capable of launching instruments and detectors high above Earth’s atmosphere. Their goal was to be able to examine the Universe in wavelengths not seen in terrestrially based instrumentation. One of the objects they were most curious about is x-rays and SN 1006 was one of the faintest X-ray sources detected by the first generation of X-ray satellites.

This new image of SN 1006 from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory shows us intricate detail not seen in optical light. By combining ten different sets of Chandra images taken from different viewpoints, astronomers have given us a look at the debris field which occurred when a white dwarf star ended its life violently. In this new Chandra image, low, medium, and higher-energy X-rays are colored red, green, and blue respectively.

What do images like this teach us? It gives us a vital look into the creation of SN 1006, the “leftovers” of a Type Ia supernova. Here we are seeing what happens when a white dwarf star acretes too much mass from its companion star and explodes – or when two white dwarf stars combine and explode. Understanding these types of events gives researchers the information they need to look into other galaxies for similar events and help map out universal expansion.

“The new SN 1006 image represents the most spatially detailed map yet of the material ejected during a Type Ia supernova.” says the Chandra team. “By examining the different elements in the debris field — such as silicon, oxygen, and magnesium — the researchers may be able to piece together how the star looked before it exploded and the order that the layers of the star were ejected, and constrain theoretical models for the explosion.”

As always, there is more to the picture than meets the eye. Now astronomers are able to determine just how fast specific knots of material are being blown away from the explosions original source. The most speedy are cruising outward at nearly eleven million miles per hour, while other regions are much slower at seven million miles per hour. Not a bad record for looking at an object that’s nearly 7,000 light years away!

Now, take one more look at the image. The information here was gathered in eight days of observing time – and half a century of curiosity. It may have occurred over a thousand years ago, but it’s worth far more than a thousand words!

Original Story Source: NASA / Chandra News Release. Submitted by Tammy Plotner for “Dave Reneke’s World of Space and Astronomy News”.

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