Flying Dust

NASA/CXC/JPL-Caltech/Harvard-Smithsonian CfA

Dust from the remains of a collapsed star flies past a nearby family of stars in this image from NASA’s Chandra and Spitzer space telescopes.

The star cluster may have been home to a supernova explosion, scientists believe. The dust from G54.1+0.3 is just now engulfing the neighboring stars. Supernovae occur when stars that are five to ten times more massive than our Sun reach the end of their lives. These massive stars burn through their hydrogen and helium fuel so quickly that they live only a few million years. Once the fuel is used up, they collapse suddenly and then blast their outer layers into space. For a short time, supernova can outshine an entire galaxy.

The leftover remains of the star is seen in this image as the white spot near the center. This remaining core has become a pulsar, a rapidly rotating neutron star. This star is spewing a blistering wind of high-energy particles. The high-speed particles light up the glowing blue cloud of material. The nebula spans more than 6 light-years. The pulsar and surrounding nebula are similar to the Crab and Vela supernova remnants.

Explore this composite image. Scientists combined light from the observatories to get a clearer picture of what is going on. Chandra observes the universe in X-ray which is blue in the image. Spitzer, with its infrared telescopes, sees much longer wavelength light, seen as red and green in the image.

G54.1+03 offers scientists are rare view of a freshly formed supernova. The stars surrounding the supernova actually offer clues for scientists because without them, the dust would not glow. As gas and dust move away from the supernova it cools rapidly making it too cold for Spitzer to observe. The red glow is that dust warmed by the suns of the cluster. Dust near the stars is hottest and glows yellow in the image.

Scientists estimate G54.1+03 lies about 20,000 light-years from Earth toward the constellation Sagitta, the Arrow. In ancient Greek mythology, the constellation depicted the arrow Hercules used to kill the eagle Aquila.

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