Hubble traces history of supernova remnant 200,000 lightyears away

The exploded remains of a massive star is being studied using the Hubble Space Telescope to reveal the story behind the supernova.

Supernova remnant 1E 0102.2-7219, the remains of a star that exploded Small Magellanic Cloud. Credit: NASA, ESA, and J. Banovetz and D. Milisavljevic (Purdue University)
Supernova remnant 1E 0102.2-7219, the remains of a star that exploded Small Magellanic Cloud. Credit: NASA, ESA, and J. Banovetz and D. Milisavljevic (Purdue University)

Astronomers have used the Hubble Space Telescope to observe a supernova remnant 200,000 lightyears from Earth in the Small Magellanic Cloud, a satellite galaxy of our own Milky Way.

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But what is a supernova remnant, and what can their study tell us about the Universe?

A distant view of supernova remnant 1E 0102.2-7219, the remains of a star that exploded Small Magellanic Cloud. Credit: NASA, ESA, and J. Banovetz and D. Milisavljevic (Purdue University)
A distant view of supernova remnant 1E 0102.2-7219. Credit: NASA, ESA, and J. Banovetz and D. Milisavljevic (Purdue University)

When stars much more massive than the Sun reach the end of their lives, they begin to burn through their remaining hydrogen fuel, eventually collapsing under the weight of their own gravity and exploding in an event known as a supernova.

This is the fate of stars 1.4 times the mass of our Sun, and more massive.

Because these events are so difficult to predict, astronomers struggle to observe them in real time, but what they can do instead is study the aftermath: so-called ‘supernova remnants’.

The most famous of these, perhaps, is the spectacular Crab Nebula.

The Crab Nebula This is a gaseous supernova remnant with a neutron star at its heart. Spitzer worked with Hubble and Chandra to observe this object. Credit: Credits: NASA, ESA, NRAO/AUI/NSF and G. Dubner (University of Buenos Aires)
The Crab Nebula This is a gaseous supernova remnant with a neutron star at its heart. Credit: NASA, ESA, NRAO/AUI/NSF and G. Dubner (University of Buenos Aires)

This latest Hubble image shows 1E 0102.2-7219, a supernova remnant 200,000 lightyears away in which gas is being ejected into space an average speed of 3.2 million km per hour.

Astronomers are using Hubble data to calculate the age and central location of the stellar explosion.

New estimates suggest light from the supernova first reached Earth about 1,700 years ago, around the time of the decline of the Roman Empire. When we look into space, we are really looking back in time.

This estimate was arrived at by studying oxygen-rich clumps of matter ejected in the blast. Astronomers traced the clumps’ motions backward to the point of coalescence, which enabled them to identify the explosion site.

They were then able to calculate how long it would have taken for the clumps to arrive at their current location.

The region of the sky around supernova remnant 1E 0102.2-7219, the remains of a star that exploded Small Magellanic Cloud. Credit: NASA, ESA, and J. Banovetz and D. Milisavljevic (Purdue University)
The region of the sky around supernova remnant 1E 0102.2-7219. Credit: NASA, ESA, and J. Banovetz and D. Milisavljevic (Purdue University)

Hubble data was also used to measure the speed of a suspected neutron star, which is the condensed remains of the dead star behind the explosion.

The data revealed it must be travelling at over 3 million km per hour from the centre of the explosion.

By studying supernova remnants like these, astronomers can build up a vivid picture of cosmic events and gain real insight into processes occurring across the Universe.

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Observatory Hubble Space Telescope

Release date 15 January 2021

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Image credit NASA, ESA, and J. Banovetz and D. Milisavljevic (Purdue University)