Sloshing Supernova


This animation was generated the first mapping data of radioactivity in a supernova remnant, the blown-out bits and pieces of a massive star that exploded. The data was take by a NASA satellite called NuSTAR. The results, from a remnant named Cassiopeia A (Cas A), reveal how shock waves probably rip apart massive dying stars.

While small stars like our Sun die less violent deaths, larger stars (at least eight times as massive as the Sun) end up as supernovae. The high temperatures and particles created in explosions fuse lighter elements together to create heavier elements. The explosions of supernovae seeding the universe with many elements, including the gold in jewelry, the calcium in bones, and the iron in blood.

NuSTAR is the first telescope capable of producing maps of radioactive elements in supernova remnants—in this case, titanium-44. The NuSTAR map of Cas A shows the titanium concentrated in clumps at the remnant’s center and suggests a possible solution to the mystery of how the star met its demise. When researchers simulate supernova blasts with computers, as a massive star dies and collapses, the main shock wave often stalls out and the star fails to shatter. The latest findings strongly suggest that Cas A sloshed around, re-energizing the stalled shock wave and allowing the star to finally blow off its outer layers.

Video Credit: NASA

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