A mesmerising 3D simulation reveals what it would loo like to fly through the very heart of an exploded supernova 11,000 light years away.
Based on observations from a number of telescopes, a science communicator has created an interactive, three-dimensional simulation of Cassiopeia A, an expanding cloud of material formed when a star exploded.
Each of the many colours in the visualisation represents a different wavelength of light — not all of which would naturally be visible to the human eye — enabling us to see the supernova remnant in all its glory.
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The simulated supernova was developed by Kimberly Arcand, a science communicator with NASA’s Chandra X-ray observatory, using real observations of the supernova Cassiopeia A to create her the technicolour visualisation.
Mrs Arcand combined data from the orbiting Chandra X-ray Observatory and the Spitzer Space Telescope, as well as ground-based telescopes at the National Optical Astronomy and MDM Observatories in Arizona, in the US.
The telescopes observed the supernova not only using the visible light that our eyes can see, but also in the gamma ray, infrared, radio, ultraviolet and X-ray wavelengths.
In the simulation, these different wavelengths are made visible by representing them in different colours.
‘All of that data has to be translated and processed in a way that humans can see, so it’s really important to be able to study our universe using different kinds of light,’ Mrs Arcand said.
‘Each band of light gives you different information, so it’s like adding puzzle pieces to fit into the greater whole.’
WHAT IS CASSIOPEIA A?
Supernova remnant Cassiopeia A (seen in false colour image)
Cassiopeia A is the remains of a giant star which went supernova, expelling a cloud of gas and stellar debris
The cloud lies around 11,000 light years from the Earth and, while currently 10 light years across, is expanding at up to 3,700 miles (6,000 kilometres) every second.
The supernova debris is thought to have a temperature of around 50 million degrees Fahrenheit (28 million degrees Celsius).
Cassiopeia A was first described in 1947 by Cambridge astronomers Francis Graham-Smith and Martin Ryle.
The supernova would have first become visible to viewers on the Earth back in 1667.
Cassiopeia A was the Milky Way’s last supernova that would have been visible on the Earth to the naked eye.
The combined visualisation is a multicoloured flurry of green iron, magenta neon, red argon and yellow silicon gas clouds, punctuated by purple jets of rapidly moving, energetic matter streaming out through the debris.
At the heart of the vivid cloud can be seen the image of a neutron star — these are the small, ultra-dense stellar cores left over when a giant star collapses in on itself and goes supernova.
These explosions — the largest known to take place in space — occur near the end of a star’s lifetime as it runs out of nuclear fuel.
Eventually, the star’s core is no longer able to maintain enough outward pressure, and it collapses in on itself, triggering an explosion that expels gas and dust out into space.
The visualisation depicts the remnant supernova Cassiopeia A, which is located around 11,000 light years away from the Earth, within the Milky Way.
The cloud left behind after the supernova stretches across 10 light years and is still thought to be expanding, possibly by up to 3,700 miles (6,000 kilometres) every second.
This supernova debris has a temperature of around 50 million degrees Fahrenheit (28 million degrees Celsius).
Cassiopeia A was first described by scientists in 1947, but its light likely first became visible on the Earth around 300 years ago, although there are no definite historical records of the supernova itself having been observed.
The visualisation depicts the remnant supernova Cassiopeia A, which is located around 11,000 light years away from the Earth, within the Milky Way
The free-to-use visualisations were designed for not only the general public, but also for use in the classroom.
‘Projects such as this one make science learning exciting and relevant,’ said Stephanie Norby, who is the director of the Smithsonian Center for Learning and Digital Access, which oversaw the development of the visualisation.
‘Using media tools, [students] can make a personal connection to topics that may initially seem esoteric, to discover that there are forces that connect everyone to the stars.’
The simulation comes as an interactive simulation, a three-dimensional video tour narrated by Mrs Arcand, and a multimedia instructional class activity package.
The latter takes students through the basics of the electromagnetic spectrum and illustrates how different elements are produced as stars explode.
‘Journey through an Exploded Star’ can be explored on the Smithsonian Learning Lab website.
WHAT IS THE CHANDRA X-RAY OBSERVATORY?
NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory is a telescope specially designed to detect X-ray emission from very hot regions of the Universe such as exploded stars, clusters of galaxies, and matter around black holes.
Because X-rays are absorbed by Earth’s atmosphere, Chandra must orbit above it, up to an altitude of 86,500 miles (139,000 km) in space.
It launched on on July 23, 1999 and is sensitive to X-ray sources 100 times fainter than any previous X-ray telescope, enabled by the high angular resolution of its mirrors.
There are no concrete plans from Nasa to replace Chandra and further study the X-ray wavelength of light.
The Chandra X-ray telescope is now in its 20th year of operation and has surpassed its projected operational lifespan by nearly 15 years.
Chandra automatically went into so-called safe mode in October because of a gyroscope problem.