The First Recorded Supernova

This image combines data from four space telescopes to create a multi-wavelength view of all that remains of RCW 86, the oldest documented example of a supernova. Chinese astronomers witnessed the event in A. D. 185, recording a “guest star” that remained in the sky for eight months. X-ray images from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and the European Space Agency’s XMM-Newton Observatory were combined to form the blue and green colors in the image. The X-rays show the interstellar gas that has been heated to millions of degrees by the passage of the shock wave from the supernova. Infrared data from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope and WISE, the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer, shown in yellow and red, reveal dust radiating at a temperature of several hundred degrees below zero, warm by comparison to normal dust in our Milky Way galaxy.

Astronomers were able to determine from the X-ray and Infrared data that the cause of the explosion was a Type 1a supernova. In a Type 1a  supernova an otherwise-stable white dwarf or dead star is pushed beyond the brink of stability when a companion star dumps material onto it.

Scientists also used the data to solve another mystery surrounding the remnant: how it got to be so large in such a short amount of time. By blowing away wind prior to exploding, the white dwarf was able to clear out a huge cavity, a region of very low-density surrounding the system. The explosion into this cavity was able to expand much faster than it otherwise would have. This is the first time that this type of cavity has been verified around a white dwarf system prior to explosion. Scientists say the results may have significant implications for theories of white-dwarf binary systems and Type Ia supernovae.

RCW 86 is approximately 8,000 light-years away. At about 85 light-years in diameter, it occupies a region of the sky in the southern constellation of Circinus that covers slightly more of the sky than the full moon.

Image Credit: NASA / ESA