Banner yet wave

By Phil Plait | July 4, 2008 8:00 am

The folks at Hubble just released this picture, in time for the Fourth of July:

Hubble image of SN 1006 ribbon

That is a seriously cool image. It shows a ribbon of gas, compressed and glowing due to a shock wave that slammed into it. The shock came from Supernova 1006, a star that detonated 7000 light years away from us. This was not a massive star that exploded, but a low-mass white dwarf, the dense core left over when a star like the Sun runs out of fuel. Still, the forces are roughly the same, with a titanic explosion ripping the star apart and creating eerie, unearthly beauty even in death.

White dwarfs don’t have much if any hydrogen in them. The gas in the image is mostly hydrogen (that’s what gives it that red hue), meaning this material must be just random gas floating in the galaxy that got in the way of the expanding blast wave. The remnant itself, the expanding debris from the supernova, is now so spread out — it’s 60 light years across! — that it’s mostly invisible to telescopes. But the wave is still moving outward at about 10 million kph, so when it hits gas like this the matter compresses and glows.

I enhanced the color and contrast of the image a bit here to show off the incredibly narrow filaments in the ribbon, as well as letting you see faint background stars and even a galaxy or ten way off in the background. Too bad there aren’t any obviously blue stars or galaxies in the image, given the holiday. Oh well, the universe doesn’t care much for our mundane lives or freedoms. But it’s those very things that allow us to observe the universe — and it’s the explosive fireworks of supernovae events like SN 1006 that created the calcium in our bones and the iron in our blood, scattering them throughout the galaxy, where they could gather in gas clouds, which formed stars, planets, and eventually, us.

Remeber: when we look out, we look in. That’s one of the many reasons science is so cool.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Pretty pictures, Science

Comments (32)

  1. Wow. Death really is the mother of beauty, as the poet Wallace Stevens once wrote.

  2. Ignorant Athiest

    Science is SO cool! I wish I understood more, or were more articulate.

  3. madge

    Awesome picture! Happy July 4th to all you folks across the pond :)

  4. Yoo

    Is this a natural color image? Because if it’s not, we could just adjust the colors of some of the stars to blue and it still wouldn’t be cheating. :P

  5. It’s NEXUS! Somebody must rescue Jim Kirk from there!

  6. baley

    That seem almost unreal :o

    Is there a bigger picture showing the supernova remnants ?

  7. Cardoso,
    I was thinking Star Trek too, but the Original Series where the Enterprise approaches the edge of the galaxy and there is that energy field. I can’t remember the name of the episode.

  8. Yoo

    “Where no man has gone before” (complete guess …)

  9. Hunter

    Hello new background image.

    I didn’t see it on HubbleSite, but do we know how far away this ribbon is from Earth and how thick the ribbon is. Also, they say that this is a composite of two different images and that the picture was taken using the hydrogen filter on the hubble, does that mean that it’s invisible to the human eye?

  10. Well, I did talk about the same supernova in an earlier post. How can you miss the resemblance? :)

  11. Melusine

    From Hubble site:

    On or around May 1, 1006 A.D., observers from Africa to Europe to the Far East witnessed and recorded the arrival of light from what is now called SN 1006,…The supernova was probably the brightest star ever seen by humans, and surpassed Venus as the brightest object in the night time sky, only to be surpassed by the moon….

    Today we know that SN 1006 has a diameter of nearly 60 light-years, and it is still expanding at roughly 6 million miles per hour.

    Those factoids amaze me – a 1000 years to get to this image. (I think it looks like red licorice.)

  12. In reality, this object is highly rarefied, correct? So if you were sitting in your interstellar tin can when this shockwave struck, would you even notice? If you were, say, 5 LY away from this structure, would you even see it without special instruments?

  13. Sort of related to the last question of my previous post…

    Given that we’re in a little stellar neighbourhood with a few starts in it – Sol, the Centauri group, etc., could it be that we are in a remnant nebula and just can’t see it? maybe a little star cluster?

    My mind wanders on these sunny Fridays.

  14. Chip

    Evolving Squid Says: “So if you were sitting in your interstellar tin can when this shockwave struck, would you even notice? If you were, say, 5 LY away from this structure, would you even see it without special instruments?”

    This is an interesting question that people have had arguments about on the Bulletin Board because the answer is both yes & no depending on type of nebula and circumstances. I can only offer the opinion that in this specific case you would likely not see anything (from the luxurious spaceship forward lounge window*) partially because the hypothetical ship is so tiny and the gas stream is so enormously huge.

    In some cases you might see a nebula and then upon getting closer it becomes so big a diffuse that it disappears. Some nebulae can only be seen when special filters and wavelengths are applied that the human eye cannot see. Other nebulae would be quite spectacular close up, such as the Orion nebula, which if 5 LY away from Earth would be very noticeable, and give us a very different night sky than what we enjoy now. Timothy Ferris has mentioned very bright naked eye nebulae glowing from nearby and embedded stars.

    *As long as we’re imagining a starship, it might as well not be a tin can. ;)

  15. Leigh

    HAPPY FOURTH OF JULY!!! to all my American friends. Enjoy your fireworks tonight. (except you Alaskans of course.)

  16. quasidog

    Love seeing new things from different viewpoints.

  17. Nathan Myers

    I know astronomers love shocks and supernovae, and love even more to *talk* about “shocks” and “supernovae”, but that thing looks just as likely to be a glow-phase plasma current, same as you see in a museum-store plasma ball.

    For that to be possible, of course, interstellar space would need to be not truly *infinitely* conductive, and charge would need to be carried by actual particles with actual, and varied, mass — heavy for positive charge carriers, often very light for negative charge carriers, and not nonexistent massless charge carriers. (I understand how astronomers prefer to assume otherwise, as it makes for intractable mathematics. Intractable mathematics is the worst thing ever, to an astronomer.) When your charge carriers have different masses, it can be pretty hard to keep everything neutral, unless of course you just pretend, as astronomers generally do.

    It’s probably just another shock seen edge-on, like every other sinuous twisted feature anywhere.

  18. Are you one of those electric universe guys?

    In my experience, it’s pretty easy to keep everything neutral, even mathematically.

  19. Chip: No, you probably wouldn’t notice, until you look in a mirror and see your own eyes glowing back at you eerily…

  20. Nathan Myers

    Squid: One of those whats? How about you, are you one of those ad hominem guys?

  21. Every time I read about supernovae, the ‘expanding blast wave’ or ‘shock wave’ is mentioned, which illuminates whatever it rams through, producing images like this. But here on earth, waves travel through media, such as water or air. In empty space, what constitutes the wave? Electromagnetic radiation(which we all know requires no ether in which to travel)? This is not really a ‘shock wave’, something represented in my mechanical engineering mind by a pressure gradient(which requires media), is it? Fine, once the wave reaches a gas, a media exists through which a wave can travel, but how did it get there through the vacuum of space? I would like to understand it more, but not if I can’t get my brain off the concept of a media through which ‘shock waves’ travel.

  22. Nathan Myers

    Ed: Better be careful. Facts are likely to rile people around here. They might even accuse you of being “one of those eclectic universe guys” or something.

    In fact, there’s practically no gas (“hot” or otherwise) anywhere in the universe, save in planetary atmospheres. The partially or fully ionized plasma almost everywhere else has a density that, as a gas, would be hard vacuum, and incapable of propagating waves any distance. As a plasma, though, the ions interact at ranges millions of times greater than the sizes of the atoms. (The neutral atoms mill about obliviously, driven by collisions whichever way the ions go.) This is very fine for carrying waves, but plasma behaves very differently from gas. Astronomers have generally agreed among themselves to just pretend otherwise, except where convenient, e.g. hard vacuum carrying waves. (Here’s my kids’ Dorling Kindersley Science Encyclopedia: “plasma … is not often seen. It exists only … inside the Sun … or on Earth at low pressures.”) They prefer to use “shocks” to explain everything visible, and don’t care to get into too much detail about what’s going on in these “shocks”.

    Furthermore, a spherical pulse of radiation from a momentary event is often described, by analogy, as a shock wave because when it expands from one region into another with different composition, observable things sometimes happen (to the plasma there) that can be described as if it were some flavor of “shock”.

  23. But it’s… well… solid red. That and the three stars in the lower left hand corner makes it look sort of like the PRC flag. ;)

  24. “Remeber: when we look out, we look in. That’s one of the many reasons science is so cool.”


  25. How about you, are you one of those ad hominem guys?

    No. The electric universe hypothesis pops up in comments here from time to time. It’s been debunked countless times, and is worthy of being dismissed out of hand with no further discussion.

    If you aren’t basing your comments on “electric universe” then the answer to my question is simply “no”.

  26. Nathan Myers

    Squid: I’m at a loss to guess what you can honestly imagine has “been debunked”.

    That the interstellar medium is plasma throughout, kept partially or fully ionized by high-energy radiation? That the collective mass of plasma in the ISM and IGM entirely overwhelms the collective mass of star systems? That every star is itself plasma, from fully-ionized core to fully-ionized corona? That plasma fluid dynamics is overwhelmingly more complex than ordinary fluid dynamics? That charged particles move through space, producing a magnetic field as they go? That magnetic fields in space vary in time and space, producing potential differences? That the degree of ionization and elemental composition found varies from place to place?

    I suppose you “debunk” it all just by insisting none of the above can possibly have any effect on anything that actually observable. Perhaps you make up a bunch of claims that no one actually asserts (e.g. “gravitation has no effect”), and make fun of those. Maybe you pick absurd claims by ideologists who have latched onto plasma-astronomical concepts, and project them on everyone else. Probably you trot out results from an approximation (e.g. pith balls, or MHD) and project them on conditions where their underlying assumptions are violated. Most likely all of the above. None of this, of course, would count as honest.

  27. My understanding is that the electric universe theory is entirely plausible if you ignore what we know about the universe and what is directly observed and measured.

  28. What I mean by debunked is that no premise has stood up to observation or measurement, much as Shane says. The founding assumption (that large-scale objects can have and maintain an electric charge) has not stood up to inquiry, nor has anything like that been observed.

    The simple fact that the electromagnetic force is huge relative to gravity would mean that large-scale charged objects would have obvious, undeniable properties and effects that could not be overlooked by those poor, misguided gravity theorists. Those properties could not be hidden in mathematical tricks or assumptions. Large scale plasma flows could be easily measured by instruments well below modern technology, there’s no trick to it, you only need to look. Well, we have the instruments in place, and the flows are not observed.

    Consequently, it is apparent to anyone who has even a tenuous grasp of high-school physics that the Electric Universe hypothesis cannot be true, even if it is true that some plasma exists here and there.

  29. Nathan Myers

    So, charge can only exist on an object? That’s the “pith ball approximation”. Fail. Large-scale plasma flows ought to be detectable? They have been. Fail.

    Thus far you’re not doing very well.

  30. Yes, charge can only exist on an object, although that object might be sub-atomic in size. Charge is not a magic property like Mana and Ether. A macroscopic charged object has properties that are stronger than gravity. If astronomical objects were charged, they would exhibit huge effects that would be very easy to detect. Those effects would overpower gravity.

    No, large-scale plasma flows that link the universe together in the manner suggested by Electric Universe hypothesis have never been detected. Sure, plasma exists, but it’s not “The Force”, and unlike “The Force” plasma does not bind everything together. It’s easy to detect a plasma flow – go look at a neon lamp. That doesn’t mean that the universe is electric.

    Nathan, you’re a troll, and I will feed you no further.

  31. Nathan Myers

    Squid: “Troll”? Oh, so you are one of those ad hominem guys. You should have said so when I asked.

    Nobody said charge was magic. Nobody said plasma was “The Force”. I can’t imagine what it would mean for plasma to “bind everything together”. Those were your (silly) words. Your claim was that charge could only exist on “large-scale objects”. An ion is not a large-scale object, yet an extended collection of ions, which we call “plasma”, can indeed carry charge, and both be affected by and generate magnetic fields. Plasma does have mass. The mass of hadronic matter in low-density plasma form completely overwhelms that locked up in “large-scale objects”.

    The only substantive statement in your reply is, in fact, false: “it’s easy to detect a plasma flow”. Plasma flow is visible only if the current level is high enough. That’s called “glow phase”. At higher current densities we see “arc phase”. At lower levels it is invisible. If plasma fluid dynamics were taught in high school, you might know that.

    So far you’re batting sub-zero. It wouldn’t mean anything to say the universe is electric. It means no more to insist that it’s not, but it tells us something about the speaker.


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