The Hubble Space Telescope, responsible for our current estimates of the age of the universe and the first detection of organic matter on an exoplanet, does a lot of science and is still alive. His latest masterpiece remixes an old hit – apparently a growing trend in science as well as music.
Big Bada Boom
The story of this image begins about 165,000 years ago, when an unnamed O-type star in the Large Magellanic Cloud died in a type II supernova. Light from the explosion shot out in all directions, and about 160,000 years later, a tiny cross-section of this expanding sphere of light reached Earth. If humanity had modern telescopes around 3000 BC. AD, automated systems may have recorded an anomaly in the southern constellation of Dorado, well within the limits of human perception at such a great distance.
The supernova remnant took on a familiar shape: a beautiful glowing cloud of expanding gas surrounding a pulsar – a super dense, rapidly rotating neutron star with a strong magnetic field. Shock waves from the collapsing stellar core interacted with the nebula, coalescing the diffuse gas into filaments. Two particularly hot and dense regions of gas were moving away from the central pulsar in opposite directions, “bullets” likely fired by the core’s strong magnetic field. In 5,000 years, the nebula would be 75 light-years across, its core still glowing at a million degrees.
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The remnant was cataloged by Karl Henize in 1956 as part of a survey of emission nebulae in the Magellanic Clouds. Dubbed N49 (sometimes LMC N49), it was immediately recognized as a powerful radio transmitter and to date is the brightest supernova remnant in the Large Magellanic Cloud. On March 5, 1979, a historically powerful gamma-ray burst was detected by all nine spacecraft in the interplanetary gamma-ray burst network. The source was quickly identified as N49, who at this point was a usual suspect for this kind of mischief.
But the March 5 transient was so incredibly powerful that a second, otherwise invisible neutron star in that region was emitted. The term “pulsar” was not going to suffice for N49. This event and others like it spurred the study of “soft gamma ray repeaters” and eventually the creation of the “magnetar” classification in 1992.
The Hubble Space Telescope first photographed N49 for 3 hours between November 1998 and July 2000. Three false-color images in the classic “Hubble palette” – red for sulfur, blue for oxygen and green for hydrogen – were captured using its wide Field Planetary Camera 2 and overlaid on a black-and-white base image, also captured by Hubble. The composite image has been used in studies primarily focused on better understanding the structure and environment of the nebula.
N49 has at least 26 other identifiers in different catalogs. The most common nickname in the press is DEM L 190. The rest have been imaged by such notables as ROSAT, Chandra and Spitzer, and were even mentioned in Chapter 9 of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos companion book.
The intrigue of the rest comes not only from its brightness and powerful EM bursts, but also from its asymmetry. Think of the magnificent Ring Nebula, Cat’s Eye, or Lion Nebula. Each of these monuments to the awe-inspiring beauty of the cosmos was created through the same basic process as N49. An observer of most planetary nebulae could be forgiven for entertaining the thought of a cosmic clockmaker.
By comparison, N49 looks like that watchmaker who tried to flip an omelet and really screwed up. Understanding why and how occasional stellar remnants get so messy will help us understand stellar life cycles more fully.
As imaging technology improves, the ESA/Hubble team revisits targets from time to time. For example, in 2003, one dataset was captured along with the others but was not included in the original composite. This data has been added to this new image, and improved image processing techniques have now revealed an unprecedented level of detail, including new structures in the nebula. What will this new photo reveal to experienced eyes? This is the fun part. In a few years, this photo may help answer questions we don’t even have yet!
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