Crazy violent explosion shoots out two cosmic bullets

By Phil Plait | May 25, 2010 8:00 am

I deal with superginormously ridiculous energies, velocities, and sizes all the time as an astronomer. You get used to it after a while… then something like this’ll slap you upside the head: a star that exploded more than 5000 years ago launched two epic bullets. One is a cloud of gas screaming away at thousands of kilometers per second, and the other is the cinder of the star itself, an octillion-ton cannonball blasting through space in a totally different direction.

chandra_n49

This is a composite picture of the supernova remnant N49: an expanding lumpy sphere of gas about 30 light years across (300 trillion kilometers, or 180 trillion miles)*, located in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a satellite galaxy to our Milky Way. The blue in the picture is the emission from gas heated to millions of degrees, and shows X-rays detected by the Chandra observatory. The yellow and purple are from Hubble data, showing gas being whipped and beaten by shock waves slamming around insides the remnant.

Turn your attention to the little blue blob to the right, marked by the red arrow. It’s outside the main bubble of the nebula, meaning that it must be moving faster than the gas in general. This is seen sometimes in supernovae remnants: a bullet or focused blob of gas screaming away. It may be caused by magnetic fields in the expanding gas just after the star explodes, launching the octillions of tons of matter away in all directions, or it may be due to focusing from shock waves, which can sculpt the gas and create little pockets of denser knots.

Either way, this bullet is moving away from the nebula at speeds of more than 2200 km/sec (1300 miles per second) — fast enough to cross the United States in less than 3 seconds. The mass of the blob is unclear, but to give you an idea of the energies involved, it emits 10 times the Sun’s total energy in just X-rays alone. Incredible.

Now focus your attention to the star-like point source indicated by the other red arrow, near the top of the remnant. The astronomers took a good look at that object, which was previously known to be an object called SGR 0526−66. SGR stands for Soft Gamma ray Repeater, an object that periodically blasts out flashes of super-high-energy gamma rays. SGRs are neutron stars, the ultra-compact and überdense (I know, I’m running out of adjectives.. but just you wait…) leftover cores of stars that have exploded. They can have more than the mass of the Sun compressed down into a ball just a few kilometers across! A cubic centimeter of neutron star material (usually called neutronium, a word I love love love) weighs about as much as the combined weight of all the cars in the United States. So there’s that.

The astronomers found the age of the SGR to be a few thousand years, which matches the age of the nebula! That means it’s very likely this is the leftover core of the star that exploded and created N49 itself. But what’s it doing way off center?

Astronomers think that sometimes the explosion can be off-center in the star, so that things don’t quite expand the same in all directions. Given the energies involved (hint: a LOT) this can give the neutron star a kick, sending it caroming through space at high velocity. If SGR 0526-66 is indeed the leftover cinder from the explosion, to get where it is in the time since the explosion it has to be moving at a velocity of at least 790 km/sec (490 miles/second). Think about that: this is an object with the mass of the Sun and it got kicked so hard it went shooting off hundreds of times faster than a rifle bullet.

Yeah, you might want to sit for a moment and soak that in.

It gets worse! Since it’s seen in the Chandra data, that means it’s hot. Glowing at several million degrees, the energy it gives off in just X-rays is a hundred times the Sun’s total energy production! If you replaced the Sun with SGR 0526-66, you’d barely be able to see it since it’s so small, but it would hardly matter: the X-rays it gives off would cook the Earth like a marshmallow in a furnace. If that’s not enough awesome for you, the magnetic field at the surface of the neutron star is about 100 trillion times stronger than the Earth’s!

Neutron stars are small in stature, but nothing else about them is.

Studying supernovae remnants is interesting scientifically for lots of reasons, not the least of which is that they create the heavy elements in the Universe, so we literally owe our lives to them. That would be enough… but I know that secretly, astronomers study them because they are simply so frakkin’ cool.

Or maybe it’s not so secret.



* A lot of these remnants look like mammograms to me. Make of that what you will.

Image credit: X-ray: (NASA/CXC/Penn State/S.Park et al.); Optical: NASA/STScI/UIUC/Y.H.Chu & R.Williams et al

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Pretty pictures

Comments (40)

  1. IVAN3MAN AT LARGE

    Phil Plait:

    I deal with superginormously ridiculous energies…

    Then I suggest that you try dealing with “joules” instead of “ergs”! ;-)

  2. Minos

    The mass of the blog is unclear

    I overheard a conversation last night about how much an internet weighs.

    /nitpick

  3. rob

    “A cube of neutron star material (usually called neutronium, a word I love love love) weighs about as much as the combined weight of all the cars in the United States. So there’s that.”

    you missed the size of the cube.

  4. I just hope Wesley and Data can get the Enterprise out of the way of that fragment in time.

  5. Noel

    @ Minos

    under what gravitational influence? ;)

  6. Bravehamster

    More evidence that Space:1999 was totally plausible, if only they had been living on a star instead of the moon, and instead of a nuclear waste dump exploding it was a supernova.

  7. Simon Gates

    “A cube of neutron star material weighs about as much as the combined weight of all the cars in the United States.”

    A big cube or a little cube?

  8. Oli

    “it emits 10 times the Sun’s total energy in just X-rays alone”

    Per second/day/year/star life?

  9. But what we do know is that if enough people post, the blogosphere will collapse under its own gravitational field. It will then exert its baleful influence on us all, without giving any illumination. Oh, wait…

    Do I detect that the proles are getting jaded with the astroporn? Gimme some of that ol’ time political polemic.

  10. Naked Bunny with a Whip:

    I just hope Wesley and Data can get the Enterprise out of the way of that fragment in time.

    Well, if Wesley hadn’t been playing around — again — with one of his “experiments”, and shut down Engineering main computers — again — then this wouldn’t be a problem, would it?

    Now, can a small rock kill a non-enchanted, naked bunny?

  11. @Ken B: How fast is the rock moving?

  12. Joe

    Last weekend I was eating dinner with a family, and the oldest boy, about 14, kept asking me about astronomy, the nature of black holes, neutron stars, etc. Eventually the dad leaned over, gave us both a condescending look, and said “who cares?”, like he was proud that he didn’t. I read things like this and I think, “why WOULDN’T you care??”

  13. John Paradox

    This is seen sometimes in supernovae remnants: a bullet or focused blob of gas screaming away.

    Yes, but remember ‘in space, no one can hear you scream’….

    J/P=?

  14. * A lot of these remnants look like mammograms to me. Make of that what you will.

    You are the product of an oversexed, and repressed, American advertising society? :P

  15. Justyce

    netron cube – size??? – generally speaking astronomers put it at the size of a —wait — sugar cube.
    eat that!
    one sugar cube – more weight than all cars in usa, more energy than humans have generated in all of our history (cave man to modern man)

  16. Messier Tidy Upper

    (I know, I’m running out of adjectives.. but just you wait…)

    Running out of adjectives or out of superlatives? In so many ways these things are just beyond words and beyond imagination.

    Really really, really, really, really, really,really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, X [ hot /fast / magnetic / dense / etc .. ] (As Douglas Adams might’ve said. ;-) ) just doesn’t even *begin* to do such objects as SGR 0526-66 justice.

    Think about that: this is an object with the mass of the Sun and it got kicked so hard it went shooting off hundreds of times faster than a rifle bullet.

    Yeah, you might want to sit for a moment and soak that in.

    Although that’s getting at least within cooee of it. Great description of what is very nearly literally indescribable. :-)

    (Plus don’t get me started on the justice-lack inherent in giving things this astounding such unmemorable catalogue names either! ;-) )

    BTW. Great picture – even before you get an inkling of the energies and superlative defeating weirdness of objects involved. :-)

  17. OK. “blog” and “cube” fixed. Nuts.

    But the “total energy” thing is in whatever units you want. The blob emits 10x as much energy as the Sun does in the same time.

  18. Ken (a different Ken)

    @12 Joe: That’s scary. Does the dad work for the state of Texas, perchance?

    I hope you kept answering the boy’s questions as best you could – he clearly is excited about the topic, and whether he goes into astronomy later or something else he’s going to be a thinker. If his dad doesn’t squash his spirit first, of course.

  19. Off topic:

    A poll that people who value reality need to descend upon and comment on: http://www.todaysparent.com/

  20. IVAN3MAN AT LARGE

    The Sun’s energy output is 3.846 × 1026 Watts — which is equivelent to 9.19 × 1010 megatons of T.N.T. per second!*

    *Source: Wikipedia — Sun.

  21. OtherRob

    @Joe, #12:

    That is a big fatherhood fail. Even if you don’t know the answers or even if you don’t care about astronomy, you just don’t crush your child’s curiousity and excitement like that. I just hate that.

  22. ND

    Joe,

    I think some of the appropriate answers are:
    “Your son cares.”

    “A lot of people care.”

  23. This story reminds me of the one I forwarded to you last week, Phil; the one about what looks like a black hole being flung out of a galaxy, possibly due to a similar process.

  24. GuruOfChem

    @ #18 – be nice about the state of Texas, compadre – there are still plenty of us with neurons to spare down here, public opinion to the contrary. And I would suspect that if the kid is 14 and asking those questions, his idiot father (I teach science and have encountered that ilk too frequently) will not dissuade him…

  25. @19 I know it’s not a scientific and completely accurate assessment (at least I hope) but according to that poll – Against vaccination (46%). What. The. Heck?

    Ok, on topic. Anything related to supernovae peeks my interest. Neutron stars in particular. Black holes are strange but a neutron star has more appeal to me. They’re just sooooo weird that I love it. Kinda reminds me of something likened to stellar popcorn. You know, the kernel pops and bits fly off in all directions. I suppose it is a pop star? I don’t think we’ll see it on Idol anytime soon though. :)

  26. Captn Tommy

    This example, you present, irrefruitibly proves the Theorum first mentioned in the now lost Sumerian, Tablet of the Unprovable. “If one eats a chilli large enough the resulting reaction will hurl the devourer of said chilli, unto the realm of El, while damaging those who remain behind unto the ends of the Earth” or “Farts produce thrust, large farts produce a lot of thrust.”

    Irregardless

    Captn Tommyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy * >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

  27. Santone

    Is the neutron star moving faster that the escape velocity of the LMC? How many of these things are zipping around out there in interstellar/intergalactic space?

  28. Captn Tommy

    Have they performed a red shift on the two objects to see which is going where?

    Captn Tommy

  29. jcm

    “Studying supernovae remnants is interesting scientifically for lots of reasons, not the least of which is that they create the heavy elements in the Universe, so we literally owe our lives to them.”

    Reminds of this quote by Carl Sagan:

    “We are made of star stuff.”

  30. @Lewis (#25),

    :( Now it’s at 50% against. This poll desperately needs to get some rational attention. Wonder if it can be “Pharyngulated” as it were?

  31. #12 Joe:
    Morons like that epitomise all that’s wrong with today’s world! And today’s dumbed down society and deficient education system is breeding an entire generation of them…
    Your comment reminds me of something which happened to me some years ago. As Secretary of a local astronomical society, a teenage lad phoned me to ask about joining; I was out when he called, so he left a message for me to call him back. When I did so, he was out, and his dad answered. The conversation went like this – read the dad’s words in an appropriate “thick as two short planks” voice:
    Me: “Hello – can I speak to Jason, please?”
    Him: “Er – he’s gone out. Who is it?”
    Me: “It’s Neil Haggath from the Astronomical Society.”
    Several seconds of puzzled silence…
    Him: “From the wha’?”
    Me: “From Cleveland and Darlington Astronomical Society. Jason left a message for me to call him; he’s interested in joining.”
    Several more seconds of puzzled silence…
    Him: “Oh… well, I dunno owt about that!”
    Thankfully, at that point, his wife came to the phone, who had an IQ higher than her shoe size, and did know what I was talking about.
    But I thought, “Well, what a great dad you are!” /sarcasm
    Of course, any parent might not specifically have known that their son had enquired about joining an astronomical society – but you would think that any half-decent parent would at least be aware of what their son’s interests were, so that hearing such news wouldn’t leave them in complete bafflement! What an idiot.

  32. Coffeekraken

    @Larian (#30) now the poll is at 56% against, but my guess is that the people against are more likely to voice their opinion.

  33. Joe

    @18, 21, 22, 24, and 31

    Yeah, we ended up talking for about an hour about astronomy, relativity, and economics, another topic about which I think people are woefully knowledge-deficient. What bugs me the most is that people are PROUD that they don’t care. The parents in that family are very proud that they’d rather gossip about the next door neighbors than be informed about current events (they didn’t know about the earthquake in Haiti until about a week after it happened), politics, and science. Fortunately, the 14 year old is currently aspiring to be a mechanical engineer and rocks at math and science. I have full confidence that he’ll somehow turn out all right. And that’s the kind of glimmer of hope that lets me continue to have hope for the world.

    Phil and all other public educators out there: keep doing what you’re doing. I’ve posted a lot of dissenting opinions of late on this blog, but I couldn’t be more grateful that there’s people like Dr. Plait at least getting people to think.

  34. Yeebok

    After my input that poll is at :
    For (88%)– 38526 votes
    Against (12%)– 5041 votes
    Don’t know what to think (0%)– 111 votes

  35. #33 Joe:
    It’s the same in the UK, I’m sorry to say. We have an entire generation who know absolutely nothing about science, or anything remotely intellectual, and care even less – but could give you chapter and verse about who is sleeping with whom in some stupid soap opera, or every detail of the totally pointless lives of minor so-called “celebrities”, who have done absolutely nothing to merit that description.
    Among younger generations ( and I’m not that old! ), even the intelligent show a lack of knowledge that is pitiful. A few years ago, I told a work colleague – a pretty intelligent guy, who was about 30 – that I was going to a talk by Buzz Aldrin, and he replied “Who’s he?”. He had honestly never heard of him!!!!!!
    For my thoughts on all this, see
    www dot spaceandsanity dot com/apolloappendixc.html

  36. #12 & 33 Joe:
    Also, the attitude of the idiot in your story is nothing new. It’s probably much more common now, but there were some parents with such attitudes even when I was at school in the 1970’s. ( Mine, thankfully, were the opposite; my dad became chairman of the PTA, and pushed the school to provide extra tuition for me and a couple of others, in subjects where we were being held back by the mediocre level of the rest of the class, and to enter us for exams where the teachers were not going to bother. )
    There were even a few parents who objected to their kids being given homework, claiming that they were “supposed to learn at school, not at home”. In one case, which my dad was told about by the headmaster, some retard of a father actually tore up a textbook which his son had taken home, and made his son take the remains back in a carrier bag, with a note saying, “This will happen to every book my son brings home”!!!!

  37. Jonathan

    I’ve always wondered, when people like Phil use terms like “a 1 cm cube would weigh as much as all of the cars on Earth,” does that mean it would weigh that if it were on Earth, or it weighs that on the surface of whatever massive object we’re talking about? If it weighs that much on Earth, why not just say it has the same mass as all of the cars on Earth? Less confusing…

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