An All-Sky X-Ray Survey Finds the Biggest Supernova Remnant Ever Seen

Our sky is missing supernovas. Stars live for millions or billions of years. But given the sheer number of stars in the Milky Way, we should still expect these cataclysmic stellar deaths every 30-50 years. Few of those explosions will be within naked-eye-range of Earth. Nova is from the Latin meaning “new”. Over the last 2000 years, humans have seen about seven “new” stars appear in the sky – some bright enough to be seen during the day – until they faded after the initial explosion. While we haven’t seen a new star appear in the sky for over 400 years, we can see the aftermath with telescopes – supernova remnants (SNRs) – the hot expanding gases of stellar explosions. SNRs are visible up to a 150,000 years before fading into the Galaxy. So, doing the math, there should be about 1200 visible SNRs in our sky but we’ve only managed to find about 300. That was until “Hoinga” was recently discovered. Named after the hometown of first author Scientist Werner Becker, whose research team found the SNR using the eROSITA All-Sky X-ray survey, Hoinga is one of the largest SNRs ever seen.

Composite of the X-ray (pink) and radio (blue) image of Hoinga. The X-rays discovered by eROSITA are emitted by the hot debris of the exploded progenitor star. Radio antennae on Earth detect radiation emission from electrons in the outer shell of the supernova
Credit: eROSITA/MPE (X-ray), CHIPASS/SPASS/N. Hurley-Walker, ICRAR-Curtin (Radio)
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A New Study Says That Betelgeuse Won’t Be Exploding Any Time Soon

I have stood under Orion The Hunter on clear evenings willing its star Betelgeuse to explode. “C’mon, blow up!” In late 2019, Betelgeuse experienced an unprecedented dimming event dropping 1.6 magnitude to 1/3 its max brightness. Astronomers wondered – was this dimming precursor to supernova? How cosmically wonderful it would be to witness the moment Betelgeuse explodes. The star ripping apart in a blaze of light scattering the seeds of planets, moons, and possibly life throughout the Universe. Creative cataclysm.

Only about ten supernova have been seen with the naked eye in all recorded history. Now we can revisit ancient astronomical records with telescopes to discover supernova remnants like the brilliant SN 1006 (witnessed in 1006AD) whose explosion created one of the brightest objects ever seen in the sky. Unfortunately, latest research suggests we all might be waiting another 100,000 years for Betelgeuse to pop. However, studying this recent dimming event gleaned new information about Betelgeuse which may help us better understand stars in a pre-supernova state.

This comparison image shows Betelgeuse, before and after its unprecedented dimming
ESO / M. Montargès et al.
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The Youngest Stellar Disk Ever Seen, Just 500,000 Years Old

Unless you’re reading this in an aircraft or the International Space Station, then you’re currently residing on the surface of a planet. You’re here because the planet is here. But how did the planet get here? Like a rolling snowball picking up more snow, planets form from loose dust and gas surrounding young stars. As the planets orbit, their gravity draws in more of the lose material and they grow in mass. We’re not certain when the process of planet formation begins in orbit of new stars, but we have incredible new insights from one of the youngest solar systems ever observed called IRS 63.

The Rho Ophiuchi cloud complex is a nebula of gas and dust that is located in the constellation Ophiuchus. It is one of the closest star-forming regions to the Solar System and where the young star system IRS 63 was observed

Primordial Soup

Swirling in orbit of young stars (or protostars) are massive disks of dust and gas called circumstellar disks. These disks are dense enough to be opaque hiding young solar systems from visible light. However, energy emanating from the protostar heats the dust which then glows in infrared radiation which more easily penetrates obstructions than wavelengths of visible light. In fact, the degree to which a newly forming star system is observed in either visible or infrared light determines its classification. Class 0 protostars are completely enshrouded and can only be observed in submillimeter wavelengths corresponding to far-infrared and microwave light. Class I protostars, are observable in the far-infrared, Class II in near-infrared/red, and finally a Class III protostar’s surface and solar system can be observed in visible light as the remaining dust and gas is either blown away by the increasing energy of the star AND/OR has formed into PLANETS! That’s where we came from. That leftover material orbiting newly forming stars is what accumulates to form US. The whole process from Class 0 to Class III, when the solar system leaves its cocoon of dust and joins the galaxy, is about 10 million years. But at what stage does planet formation begin? The youngest circumstellar disks we’d observed are a million years old and had shown evidence that planetary formation had already begun. The recently observed IRS 63 is less than 500,000 years old – Class I – and shows signs of possible planet formation. The excitement? We were surprised to see evidence of planetary formation so early in the life of a solar system.

IRS 63 Circumstellar Disk C. ALMA/ Segura-Cox et al. 2020
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New Hubble Photos of Planetary Nebulae

Planetary nebulae are astronomy’s gateway drug. Their eye-catching forms make us wonder what process created them, and what else is going on up there in the night sky. They’re some of the most beautiful, ephemeral looking objects in all of nature.

The Hubble Space Telescope is responsible for many of our most gorgeous images of planetary nebulae. But the images are more than just engrossing eye candy. They’re documentation of a complex process that plays out over tens of thousands of years, all across the Universe.

And they’re a death knell for the star that dwells within.

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Both Stars in This Binary System Have Accretion Disks Around Them

Stars exhibit all sorts of behaviors as they evolve. Small red dwarfs smolder for billions or even trillions of years. Massive stars burn hot and bright but don’t last long. And then of course there are supernovae.

Some other stars go through a period of intense flaring when young, and those young flaring stars have caught the attention of astronomers. A team of researchers are using the Atacama Large Millimeter/sub-millimeter Array (ALMA) to try to understand the youthful flaring. Their new study might have found the cause, and might have helped answer a long-standing problem in astronomy.

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SOFIA Follows the Sulfur for Clues on Stellar Evolution

The high-flying SOFIA telescope is shedding light on where some of the basic building blocks for life may have originated from. A recent study published on The Astrophysical Journal: Letters led by astronomers from the University of Hawaii, including collaborators from the University of California Davis, Johns-Hopkins University, the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, Appalachian State University, and several international partners (including funding from NASA), looked at a lingering mystery in planet formation: the chemical pathway of the element sulfur, and its implications and role in the formation of planets and life.

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What Does It Mean To Be ‘Star Stuff’?

At one time or another, all science enthusiasts have heard the late Carl Sagan’s infamous words: “We are made of star stuff.” But what does that mean exactly? How could colossal balls of plasma, greedily burning away their nuclear fuel in faraway time and space, play any part in spawning the vast complexity of our Earthly world? How is it that “the nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies” could have been forged so offhandedly deep in the hearts of these massive stellar giants?

Unsurprisingly, the story is both elegant and profoundly awe-inspiring.

All stars come from humble beginnings: namely, a gigantic, rotating clump of gas and dust. Gravity drives the cloud to condense as it spins, swirling into an ever more tightly packed sphere of material. Eventually, the star-to-be becomes so dense and hot that molecules of hydrogen in its core collide and fuse into new molecules of helium. These nuclear reactions release powerful bursts of energy in the form of light. The gas shines brightly; a star is born.

The ultimate fate of our fledgling star depends on its mass. Smaller, lightweight stars burn though the hydrogen in their core more slowly than heavier stars, shining somewhat more dimly but living far longer lives. Over time, however, falling hydrogen levels at the center of the star cause fewer hydrogen fusion reactions; fewer hydrogen fusion reactions mean less energy, and therefore less outward pressure.

At a certain point, the star can no longer maintain the tension its core had been sustaining against the mass of its outer layers. Gravity tips the scale, and the outer layers begin to tumble inward on the core. But their collapse heats things up, increasing the core pressure and reversing the process once again. A new hydrogen burning shell is created just outside the core, reestablishing a buffer against the gravity of the star’s surface layers.

While the core continues conducting lower-energy helium fusion reactions, the force of the new hydrogen burning shell pushes on the star’s exterior, causing the outer layers to swell more and more. The star expands and cools into a red giant. Its outer layers will ultimately escape the pull of gravity altogether, floating off into space and leaving behind a small, dead core – a white dwarf.

Lower-mass stars like our sun eventually enter a swollen, red giant phase. Ultimately, its outer layers will be thrown off altogether, leaving nothing but a small white dwarf star. Image Credit: ESO/S. Steinhofel
Lower-mass stars like our sun eventually enter a swollen, red giant phase. Ultimately, its outer layers will be thrown off altogether, leaving nothing but a small white dwarf star. Image Credit: ESO/S. Steinhofel

Heavier stars also occasionally falter in the fight between pressure and gravity, creating new shells of atoms to fuse in the process; however, unlike smaller stars, their excess mass allows them to keep forming these layers. The result is a series of concentric spheres, each shell containing heavier elements than the one surrounding it. Hydrogen in the core gives rise to helium. Helium atoms fuse together to form carbon. Carbon combines with helium to create oxygen, which fuses into neon, then magnesium, then silicon… all the way across the periodic table to iron, where the chain ends. Such massive stars act like a furnace, driving these reactions by way of sheer available energy.

But this energy is a finite resource. Once the star’s core becomes a solid ball of iron, it can no longer fuse elements to create energy. As was the case for smaller stars, fewer energetic reactions in the core of heavyweight stars mean less outward pressure against the force of gravity. The outer layers of the star will then begin to collapse, hastening the pace of heavy element fusion and further reducing the amount of energy available to hold up those outer layers. Density increases exponentially in the shrinking core, jamming together protons and electrons so tightly that it becomes an entirely new entity: a neutron star.

At this point, the core cannot get any denser. The star’s massive outer shells – still tumbling inward and still chock-full of volatile elements – no longer have anywhere to go. They slam into the core like a speeding oil rig crashing into a brick wall, and erupt into a monstrous explosion: a supernova. The extraordinary energies generated during this blast finally allow the fusion of elements even heavier than iron, from cobalt all the way to uranium.

Periodic Table of Elements
Periodic Table of Elements. Massive stars can fuse elements up to Iron (Fe), atomic number 26. Elements with atomic numbers 27 through 92 are produced in the aftermath of a massive star’s core collapse.

The energetic shock wave produced by the supernova moves out into the cosmos, disbursing heavy elements in its wake. These atoms can later be incorporated into planetary systems like our own. Given the right conditions – for instance, an appropriately stable star and a position within its Habitable Zone – these elements provide the building blocks for complex life.

Today, our everyday lives are made possible by these very atoms, forged long ago in the life and death throes of massive stars. Our ability to do anything at all – wake up from a deep sleep, enjoy a delicious meal, drive a car, write a sentence, add and subtract, solve a problem, call a friend, laugh, cry, sing, dance, run, jump, and play – is governed mostly by the behavior of tiny chains of hydrogen combined with heavier elements like carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and phosphorus.

Other heavy elements are present in smaller quantities in the body, but are nonetheless just as vital to proper functioning. For instance, calcium, fluorine, magnesium, and silicon work alongside phosphorus to strengthen and grow our bones and teeth; ionized sodium, potassium, and chlorine play a vital role in maintaining the body’s fluid balance and electrical activity; and iron comprises the key portion of hemoglobin, the protein that equips our red blood cells with the ability to deliver the oxygen we inhale to the rest of our body.

So, the next time you are having a bad day, try this: close your eyes, take a deep breath, and contemplate the chain of events that connects your body and mind to a place billions of lightyears away, deep in the distant reaches of space and time. Recall that massive stars, many times larger than our sun, spent millions of years turning energy into matter, creating the atoms that make up every part of you, the Earth, and everyone you have ever known and loved.

We human beings are so small; and yet, the delicate dance of molecules made from this star stuff gives rise to a biology that enables us to ponder our wider Universe and how we came to exist at all. Carl Sagan himself explained it best: “Some part of our being knows this is where we came from. We long to return; and we can, because the cosmos is also within us. We’re made of star stuff. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.”

Radio Telescopes Resolve Pleiades Distance Debate

Fall will soon be at our doorstep. But before the leaves change colors and the smell of pumpkin fills our coffee shops, the Pleiades star cluster will mark the new season with its earlier presence in the night sky.

The delicate grouping of blue stars has been a prominent sight since antiquity. But in recent years, the cluster has also been the subject of an intense debate, marking a controversy that has troubled astronomers for more than a decade.

Now, a new measurement argues that the distance to the Pleiades star cluster measured by ESA’s Hipparcos satellite is decidedly wrong and that previous measurements from ground-based telescopes had it right all along.

The Pleiades star cluster is a perfect laboratory to study stellar evolution. Born from the same cloud of gas, all stars exhibit nearly identical ages and compositions, but vary in their mass. Accurate models, however, depend greatly on distance. So it’s critical that astronomers know the cluster’s distance precisely.

A well pinned down distance is also a perfect stepping stone in the cosmic distance ladder. In other words, accurate distances to the Pleiades will help produce accurate distances to the farthest galaxies.

With parallax technique, astronomers observe object at opposite ends of Earth's orbit around the Sun to precisely measure its distance. CREDIT: Alexandra Angelich, NRAO/AUI/NSF.
With the parallax technique, astronomers observe object at opposite ends of Earth’s orbit around the Sun to precisely measure its distance. Credit: Alexandra Angelich, NRAO / AUI / NSF

But accurately measuring the vast distances in space is tricky. A star’s trigonometric parallax — its tiny apparent shift against background stars caused by our moving vantage point — tells its distance more truly than any other method.

Originally the consensus was that the Pleiades are about 435 light-years from Earth. However, ESA’s Hipparcos satellite, launched in 1989 to precisely measure the positions and distances of thousands of stars using parallax, produced a distance measurement of only about 392 light-years, with an error of less than 1%.

“That may not seem like a huge difference, but, in order to fit the physical characteristics of the Pleiades stars, it challenged our general understanding of how stars form and evolve,” said lead author Carl Melis, of the University of California, San Diego, in a press release. “To fit the Hipparcos distance measurement, some astronomers even suggested that some type of new and unknown physics had to be at work in such young stars.”

If the cluster really was 10% closer than everyone had thought, then the stars must be intrinsically dimmer than stellar models suggested. A debate ensued as to whether the spacecraft or the models were at fault.

To solve the discrepancy, Melis and his colleagues used a new technique known as very-long-baseline radio interferometry. By linking distant telescopes together, astronomers generate a virtual telescope, with a data-gathering surface as large as the distances between the telescopes.

The network included the Very Long Baseline Array (a system of 10 radio telescopes ranging from Hawaii to the Virgin Islands), the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia, the William E. Gordon Telescope at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, and the Effelsberg Radio Telescope in Germany.

“Using these telescopes working together, we had the equivalent of a telescope the size of the Earth,” said Amy Miouduszewski, of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO). “That gave us the ability to make extremely accurate position measurements — the equivalent of measuring the thickness of a quarter in Los Angeles as seen from New York.”

After a year and a half of observations, the team determined a distance of 444.0 light-years to within 1% — matching the results from previous ground-based observations and not the Hipparcos satellite.

“The question now is what happened to Hipparcos?” Melis said.

The spacecraft measured the position of roughly 120,000 nearby stars and — in principle — calculated distances that were far more precise than possible with ground-based telescopes. If this result holds up, astronomers will grapple with why the Hipparcos observations misjudged the distances so badly.

ESA’s long-awaited Gaia observatory, which launched on Dec. 19, 2013, will use similar technology to measure the distances of about one billion stars. Although it’s now ready to begin its science mission, the mission team will have to take special care, utilizing the work of ground-based radio telescopes in order to ensure their measurements are accurate.

The findings have been published in the Aug. 29 issue of Science and is available online.