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Supernova Remnants: Dazzling Entrails of Violent Stellar Death

Mar 26, 2010
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The supernova remnant N186 D appears as a bright pink spot at the top of this new image released by NASA on Jan. 28, spewing off tremendous amounts of X-rays. Located in the Large Magellanic Cloud about 160,000 light-years away, the remnant is blowing a huge bubble (the giant structure below the bright spot) as hot wind carves out a shock wave in the surrounding material.

Even in death, there can be great beauty. Consider supernova remnants, the results of massive stars dying in great explosions, creating some of the most spectacular cosmic objects around.

Every 50 years or so, a star in our galaxy with more than 10 times the mass of our sun will expire. When such stars die, they go supernova, one of the most violent events in our universe. These explosions shoot off tons of material from the central star at up to 10 percent the speed of light.

Though the area surrounding stars seems empty, it is usually home to vast amounts of interstellar gas and dust. The supernova’s outburst runs into this surrounding material, creating a shockwave and heating it to temperatures greater than 10,000 Celsius. Over thousands of years, the local structure of the gas and dust shapes the stellar outpouring into shells, filaments, and other diffuse forms. Astronomers call these objects supernova remnants.

Supernova explosions and the remnants they leave behind have wide-ranging effects. They heat up the interstellar medium, creating complex chemistry out in space, and are responsible for accelerating protons and other atomic nuclei, which go zipping around the universe as cosmic rays. Perhaps most importantly, supernova explosions generate and liberate heavy elements, such as oxygen, carbon, and all metals, distributing them out into the wider cosmos. These elements eventually find their way into planetary systems, making life possible on at least one world that we know of.

Here, we take a look at some of the most famous and beautiful supernova remnants, giving you a chance to contemplate life, death, and cycles of renewal in the universe.