450-year-old supernova’s shockwave still apparent; was visible to humans on Earth in 1572
A team of researchers has unveiled new light on the explosion of a star in a supernova more than 450 years ago using equipment by the United States National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The blast was visible to people on our planet way back in 1572.
The shock wave from the blast is still propagating through the cosmos from the initial explosion, meaning it can be observed from Earth even now. The team used NASA’s Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE) to study polarised X-rays from the supernova remnant.
The researchers have published their findings in The Astrophysical Journal. IXPE is a collaboration between NASA and the Italian Space Agency with partners and science collaborators in 12 countries.
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The blast from the supernova named Tycho released as much energy as the Sun would emit over ten billion years, NASA said in a statement. The explosion blasted particles out into space near the speed of light.
Researchers used IXPE to reveal the geometry of the magnetic fields close to Tycho’s shock wave. Understanding the magnetic field geometry allows scientists to investigate further how particles are accelerated there.
“As one of the so-called historical supernovae, Tycho was observed by humanity in the past, and had a lasting social and even artistic impact,” said lead author of the paper Riccardo Ferrazzoli in the NASA statement.
Ferrazzoli is a researcher at the Italian National Institute for Astrophysics in Rome, which partners with NASA on the IXPE mission.
“The process by which a supernova remnant becomes a giant particle accelerator involves a delicate dance between order and chaos,” Patrick Slane, senior astrophysicist at the Center for Astrophysics at Harvard in Cambridge, Massachusetts, said in the NASA statement.
“Strong and turbulent magnetic fields are required, but IXPE is showing us that there is a large-scale uniformity, or coherence, involved as well, extending right down to the sites where the acceleration is taking place,” Shane added.
Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe first observed Tycho in the Middle Ages, along with other stargazers of the time. An 8-year-old William Shakespeare might have been potentially one of the viewers, who would go on to describe it in an early passage of “Hamlet” at the turn of the 17th century.
The Tycho supernova is classified as a Type Ia, which occurs when a white dwarf star in a binary system shreds its companion star, capturing some of its mass and triggering a violent explosion.
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The obliteration of the white dwarf sends debris hurtling into space at tremendous speeds. Such events are commonly believed to be the source of most of the galactic cosmic rays found in space, including those that continually bombard Earth’s atmosphere.
Researchers also documented similarities and surprising differences between IXPE’s findings at Tycho and at the Cassiopeia A supernova remnant, an earlier subject of study.
The overall direction of the magnetic fields in both supernova remnants appears to be radial, stretched out along a path extending outward. But Tycho yielded a much higher degree of X-ray polarisation than Cassiopeia A, suggesting it may possess a more ordered, less turbulent magnetic field.
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