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Kepler's Namesake: The Man Behind the Remnant


October 29, 2004 ::
X-ray, Optical & Infrared Composite of Kepler's SNR
Recently, NASA's three Great Observatories -- the Hubble Space Telescope, the Spitzer Space Telescope, and the Chandra X-ray Observatory - produced an extraordinary image of the Kepler supernova remnant. This combined effort reveals the remains of a shattered star in optical, infrared, and X-ray light that will help astronomer better understand how some stars die.

But what about the man himself - who was Kepler and why does this object bear his name?

Johannes Kepler (1571-1630)
Credit: Johnnes Kepler Gesammelte Werke , C. H. Beck, 1937
Four centuries ago, an evening's entertainment was as simple as stepping out to gaze at the night sky. But among the world's many star watchers one man stood apart. Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) was a mathematician and physicist who not only observed, but also sought to explain the celestial dance above.

A rather frail young man, the exceptionally talented Kepler turned to mathematics and the study of the heavens early on. When he was six, his mother pointed out a comet visible in the night sky. When Kepler was nine, his father took him out one night under the stars to observe a lunar eclipse. These events both made a vivid impression on his youthful mind and turned him toward a life oriented to the study of astronomy.

Kepler's Supernova Remnant, sandwiched between constellations Ophiuchus, Scorpius and Sagitarrius
Kepler used simple mathematics to formulate three laws of planetary motion. Kepler's First Law stated that planets move in elliptical paths around the Sun. He also discovered that planets move proportionally faster in their orbits when they are closer to the Sun, and this became Kepler's Second Law. Finally, Kepler's Third Law explained the relationship between the distance of a planet from the sun and the amount of time it took to orbit the Sun. Together these laws of celestial mechanics revolutionized astronomy.

"The era in which Kepler lived was one of tremendous upheaval and change," said Dr. Dan Lewis, curator of the history of science & technology at the Huntington Library in San Marino, Calif. "Religious leaders were reluctant to relinquish the idea that the heavens were the perfect creations of God.
De Stella Nova (1604)
Talk by astronomers of a sky filled with objects moving in non-circular orbits and other phenomena that went against an Earth-centric model threatened their beliefs. As a result, Kepler and his first wife, Barbara, created a code with which to write letters to each other so that their correspondence would not put them at risk of persecution."

Near the end of the sixteenth century, Kepler apprenticed himself to the astronomical observer Tycho Brahe, who had an observatory on the island of Hven in Denmark. The somewhat eccentric Tycho, who had lost a portion of his nose in a duel and replaced the tip of it with a contraption made of gold and silver, was nevertheless a brilliant astronomer. Kepler absorbed a great deal of information from his time working for Brahe, and based much of his later calculations on Tycho's observations.

As for the supernova remnant that now bears his name, several observers spotted the supernova on October 9, 1604, over a week before Kepler did. Once the cloudy skies cleared for Kepler, he began his observations on October 17. (This supernova might be the youngest supernova in the Milky Way. The possible exception is the Cassiopeia A supernova remnant, for which ambiguous sightings were reported around 1680.)

NASA's Three Great Observatories
Initially, the Kepler supernova brightened and surpassed Jupiter in brilliance within a few days -- which was fortunate since the telescope would not be invented for another five years. It was still about as bright as Jupiter when it became invisible in twilight of November, but continued to visible in the night sky until March 1606. This meant skywatchers had naked-eye visibility of the supernova for some 18 months. From Kepler's observations, astronomers have suspected that the supernova of 1604 was a Type Ia supernova. These events are thought to be caused when a white dwarf collapses because it has pulled too much material from a nearby companion star onto itself.

Even though Kepler wasn't the first to see this supernova, he studied the event so extensively that it was named after him. (The results of his observations were disseminated through book, De Stella Nova, published in Prague in 1606.) The Kepler supernova is now a remnant, but it is still studied by astronomers, including those of NASA's three Great Observatories.

Kepler was deeply driven by a desire to understand the analytical "why" of astronomy, well beyond the descriptive "what" of his predecessors Ptolemy and Tycho. He was also guided by a notion of beauty in the structure of the universe. In his words, "Happy is the man who devotes himself to the study of the heavens; their study will furnish him with the pursuit of enjoyments."

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