Credit: X-ray: (IXPE): NASA/MSFC/IXPE; (Chandra): NASA/CXC/SAO; (XMM): ESA/XMM-Newton; IR: NASA/JPL/Caltech/WISE; Radio: NRAO/AUI/NSF/VLA/B. Saxton. (IR/Radio image created with data from M. Goss, et al.); Image Processing/compositing: NASA/CXC/SAO/N. Wolk & K. Arcand
This composite image of the Manatee Nebula captures the jet emanating from SS 433, a black hole pulling material inwards that is embedded in the supernova remnant which spawned it. Radio emission from the supernova remnant are blue-green, whereas the X-ray from IXPE, XMM-Newton and Chandra are highlighted in bright blue-purple and pink-white set against a backdrop of infrared data in red. The black hole emits twin jets of matter traveling in opposite directions at nearly the speed of light.
These jets distort the remnant’s shape into one astronomers dubbed the Manatee. The jets become bright about 100 light-years away from the black hole, where particles are accelerated to very high energies by shocks within the jet. The IXPE data shows that the magnetic field, which plays a key role in how particles are accelerated, is aligned parallel to the jet — aiding our understanding of how astrophysical jets accelerate these particles to high energies.
Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO; Optical: NASA/ESA/STScI; IR: NASA/ESA/CSA/STScI/Milisavljevic et al., NASA/JPL/CalTech; Image Processing: NASA/CXC/SAO/J. Schmidt and K. Arcand
For the first time astronomers have combined data from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and James Webb Space Telescope to study the well-known supernova remnant Cassiopeia A (Cas A). As described in our latest press release, this work has helped explain an unusual structure in the debris from the destroyed star called the “Green Monster”, first discovered in Webb data in April 2023. The research has also uncovered new details about the explosion that created Cas A about 340 years ago, from Earth’s perspective.
We welcome Roger W. Romani as a guest blogger. Roger is the first author of a paper that is the subject of our latest Chandra release. He has been a professor of Physics at Stanford University for 30-odd years and helped found KIPAC, its institute focusing on astrophysics and cosmology. He is interested in high energy astrophysics problems of all sorts and likes to bring observations from multiple wavebands together with modeling to explain astrophysical puzzles. However, he has a special fondness for the extreme physics conditions associated with pulsars and their environments. Today’s blog gives one such example.
Magnetic fields are the binding agent that turn interstellar atoms into gases. Between the stars the particle density is so low that, without these fields, individual atoms would fly along like buckshot, essentially never colliding. But since the atoms are often ionized – with a positive charge because negatively charged electrons have been stripped away – their interaction with embedded magnetic fields forces them to flow in concord, resulting in the fluid-like behavior that forms many of the nebulas that enthrall us in astronomical images.
It is surprisingly hard to image this magnetic scaffolding. A new capability for magnetic mapping was introduced with the launch of NASA’s Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE) in late 2021. This telescope is sensitive to 1-10 keV X-rays and, using an ingenious photo-electron tracking camera developed by our Italian colleagues, is able to sense the polarization, or orientation of the electric field in the electromagnetic wave, of the individual X-ray events. (An “eV” is an electron volt, a unit that represents how much energy an electron gains when it is accelerated by the potential of one volt. A “keV” is 1000 eV.) So together with its imaging, timing, and energy resolution capabilities, IXPE can, for the first time, extract (albeit imperfectly) all of the information carried by each X-ray photon. The result is a color movie of the target, which also shows how the local emission is polarized.
SN 1006 in X-ray and Optical Light
Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO (Chandra); NASA/MSFC/Nanjing Univ./P. Zhou et al. (IXPE); IR: NASA/JPL/CalTech/Spitzer; Image Processing: NASA/CXC/SAO/J.Schmidt
When the object now called SN 1006 first appeared on May 1, 1006 A.D., it was far brighter than Venus and visible during the daytime for weeks. Astronomers in China, Japan, Europe, and the Arab world all documented this spectacular sight, which was later understood to have been a supernova. With the advent of the Space Age in the 1960s, scientists were able to launch instruments and detectors above Earth's atmosphere to observe the Universe in wavelengths that are blocked from the ground, including X-rays. The remains of SN 1006 was one of the faintest X-ray sources detected by the first generation of X-ray satellites.
This new image shows SN 1006 from two of NASA’s current X-ray telescopes, the Chandra X-ray Observatory and Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE). In the full image of SN 1006, red, green, and blue show low-, medium-, and high-energy detected by Chandra. The IXPE data, which measure the polarization of the X-ray light, have been added in the upper left corner of the remnant in purple. The lines in that corner represent the direction of the magnetic field.
We welcome Ian Brunton, a research scientist currently at NASA Johnson Space Center in the Astromaterials Research and Exploration Science Division as our guest blogger. In this post, he describes his team’s work below on the effects that a nearby supernova may have on an Earth-like planet and its biosphere. Ian first became involved with this area of research as an astronomy student of Brian Fields at the University of Illinois. He will soon be continuing his academic studies as a PhD student at Caltech in the Division of Geological and Planetary Sciences.
Much has been said about the extraordinary advancements throughout the field of astronomy, particularly regarding the innovative ways in which we can now observe the universe across the electromagnetic spectrum. Chandra has of course been one of the instruments at the forefront of this exploration for the last couple of decades, illuminating the universe in the X-ray band. These new ways of looking at our universe have served to confirm, alter, or entirely upend our prior notions of certain astrophysical processes.
What I personally find most intriguing is how these new observations can then be integrated into the knowledge and pursuits of other scientific disciplines, be it planetary science, atmospheric chemistry, geology, etc.
One of the most fascinating processes (if I may say so myself…) that orbital X-ray telescopes are especially handy for are supernovae, i.e., exploding stars! I’ll elaborate a bit on exactly why below, but first, some background on nearby supernovae and Earth is needed since our project really builds upon a lot of previous work in the field.
Everyone loves a good astronomical explosion, and supernovae — typically characterized by the wondrous spectacle of their initial outbursts — are some of the best explosions in the known universe. In the blink of an eye, these monstrous events can outshine the entire combined output of stars in a galaxy, launching neutrinos, photons, and stellar material out into the abyss of the interstellar medium.
Tycho's Supernova Remnant
Credit: X-ray (IXPE: NASA/ASI/MSFC/INAF/R. Ferrazzoli, et al.), (Chandra: NASA/CXC/RIKEN & GSFC/T. Sato et al.) Optical: DSS, Image processing: NASA/CXC/SAO/K. Arcand, L. Frattare & N. Wolk
This image provides a new look at the Tycho supernova remnant, named for Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe who noticed the bright glow of this new “star” in the constellation Cassiopeia more than 450 years ago. Astronomers used NASA’S Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE) to study polarized light from Tycho, the debris from an exploded star, as described in IXPE’s latest press release. IXPE revealed, for the first time, the geometry of the magnetic fields close to the supernova’s blast wave, which is still propagating from the initial explosion and forms a boundary around the ejected material. Understanding the magnetic field geometry allows scientists to further investigate how particles are accelerated there.
In this composite image, data from IXPE (dark purple and white) have been combined with those from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory (red and blue), which were overlaid with the stars in the field of view seen by the Digitized Sky Survey.
Credit: X-ray: Chandra: NASA/CXC/SAO, IXPE: NASA/MSFC/J. Vink et al.; Optical: NASA/STScI
For the first time, astronomers have measured and mapped polarized X-rays from the remains of an exploded star, using NASA’s Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE). The findings, which come from observations of a stellar remnant called Cassiopeia A, shed new light on the nature of young supernova remnants, which accelerate particles close to the speed of light.
Launched on Dec. 9, 2021, IXPE, a collaboration between NASA and the Italian Space Agency, is the first satellite that can measure the polarization of X-ray light with this level of sensitivity and clarity.
All forms of light — from radio waves to gamma rays — can be polarized. Unlike the polarized sunglasses we use to cut the glare from sunlight bouncing off a wet road or windshield, IXPE’s detectors maps the tracks of incoming X-ray light. Scientists can use these individual track records to figure out the polarization, which tells the story of what the X-rays went through.
Cassiopeia A (Cas A for short) was the first object IXPE observed after it began collecting data. One of the reasons Cas A was selected is that its shock waves — like a sonic boom generated by a jet — are some of the fastest in the Milky Way. The shock waves were generated by the supernova explosion that destroyed a massive star after it collapsed. Light from the blast swept past Earth more than three hundred years ago.
Supernova Remnant 0519-69.0
Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/GSFC/B. J. Williams et al.; Optical: NASA/ESA/STScI
While astronomers have seen the debris from scores of exploded stars in the Milky Way and nearby galaxies, it is often difficult to determine the timeline of the star’s demise. By studying the spectacular remains of a supernova in a neighboring galaxy using NASA telescopes, a team of astronomers has found enough clues to help wind back the clock.
The supernova remnant called SNR 0519-69.0 (SNR 0519 for short) is the debris from an explosion of a white dwarf star. After reaching a critical mass, either by pulling matter from a companion star or merging with another white dwarf, the star underwent a thermonuclear explosion and was destroyed. Scientists use this type of supernova, called a Type Ia, for a wide range of scientific studies ranging from studies of thermonuclear explosions to measuring distances to galaxies across billions of light-years.
Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO/L. Xi et al.; Optical: Palomar DSS2
The G292.0+1.8 supernova remnant contains a pulsar moving at over a million miles per hour. This image features data from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory (red, orange, yellow, and blue), which was used to make this discovery, as discussed in our latest press release. The X-rays were combined with an optical image from the Digitized Sky Survey, a ground-based survey of the entire sky.
Pulsars are rapidly spinning neutron stars that can form when massive stars run out of fuel, collapse and explode. Sometimes these explosions produce a "kick," which is what sent this pulsar racing through the remains of the supernova explosion. An inset shows a close-up look at this pulsar in X-rays from Chandra.
To make this discovery, the researchers compared Chandra images of G292.0+1.8 taken in 2006 and 2016. A pair of supplemental images show the change in position of the pulsar over the 10-year span. The shift in the source's position is small because the pulsar is about 20,000 light-years from Earth, but it traveled about 120 billion miles over this period. The researchers were able to measure this by combining Chandra's high-resolution images with a careful technique of checking the coordinates of the pulsar and other X-ray sources by using precise positions from the Gaia satellite.
NASA’s Imaging X-Ray Polarimetry Explorer, which launched into space Dec. 9, 2021, delivered its first imaging data since completing its month-long commissioning phase.
All instruments are functioning well aboard the observatory, which is on a quest to study some of the most mysterious and extreme objects in the universe.
IXPE first focused its X-ray eyes on Cassiopeia A (Cas A), an object consisting of the remains of a star that exploded in the 17th century. The shock waves from the explosion have swept up surrounding gas, heating it to high temperatures and accelerating cosmic ray particles to make a cloud that glows in X-ray light. Other telescopes, including Chandra, have studied Cas A before, but IXPE will allow researchers to examine it in a new way.
The newly-release image combines IXPE and Chandra data of Cas A. The saturation of the magenta color corresponds to the intensity of X-ray light observed by IXPE, which has been overlaid on high-energy X-rays, shown in blue, from Chandra. With different kinds of detectors, Chandra and IXPE have different levels of angular resolution, or sharpness. The IXPE data in this new image contain collected from Jan. 11 to 18, while the Chandra data come from observations over the 22-year mission thus far.
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