Starship contrail

Credit: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

A delicate ribbon of gas floats through this image from NASA‘s Hubble Space Telescope. Is it a contrail left by a starship barreling through the area? Actually, this ribbon of gas is the thin edge of the supernova remnant SN 1006 in our galaxy that exploded more than 1,000 years ago.

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Explore the image. SN 1006 is found in our Milky Way Galaxy but it is slightly out of the plane of the galaxy. This means that there are few stars to block or confuse our view of this supernova remnant. We can explore the folds in the gas. We also see many dim, far-off galaxies in the image. The stars in the image are background stars in our galaxy.

Some supernova form when stars five to ten times larger and heavier than our Sun reach the end of their lives. These stars tend to be super-hot and super-big. They burn through their nuclear fuel of hydrogen and helium within 10 million to 20 million years; very young in the life of stars. Once the fuel is used up, the giant stars begin to shrink. This makes the star hotter and the pressure of this increased heat and radiation tears the star apart. Supernovae explode, throwing their innards starward and they can outshine an entire galaxy for a short period of time. What’s interesting is that in the case of SN 1006, something slightly different happened. A white dwarf star was part of a star system with two stars. Astronomers call these binary star systems and we see many of them throughout the galaxy. White dwarf stars are thought to be the final state of stars that don’t have enough mass to become supernovae. The Sun will probably become a white dwarf at the end of its life. White dwarfs have all the weight of the Sun packed into an area the size of the Earth. In the binary star system of SN 1006, the white dwarf captured material from the other star over a long period of time. Astronomers think that white dwarfs can get only so big. When too much mass from the other star is added, POOF! A thermonuclear explosion destroys the dwarf star.

SN 1006 Remnant

SN 1006 supernova remnant

Observers on Earth saw SN 1006. Around May 1, 1006, astronomers in Africa, Europe and the Far East witnessed the first light coming from the new star that glowed in the sky. For weeks, only the Moon was brighter than the supernova in the night sky. It could be seen during they day and did not fade from view for more than two years. The supernova’s name comes from the year it was discovered. In the mid-1960s, radio astronomers detected a circular ring near the recorded position of the supernova. They found the size of the ring was about the size of a full moon as seen from Earth. That meant that in the past 1,000 years, the edge of the supernova’s bubble has been expanding at 20 million miles per hour. Astronomers now know that the bubble created by SN 1006 is about 60 light-years across. Humans didn’t see SN 1006 again until 1976 when astronomers detected the very faint edge of the supernova. The twisting braid of light we see in the image is moving quickly through an area of gas. As the supernova edge slams into the quiet gas, the gas is heated and begins to glow. As the ribbon twists, we can see the edges like a smoke ring rising into the air.

SN 1006 is located about 7,000 light-years from Earth toward the constellation of Lupus, the Wolf. That means that the light had been traveling at nearly six trillion miles per year for 7,000 years before it reached the eyes on Earth in 1006.

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