Blast site blastocyte

By Phil Plait | March 25, 2011 6:58 am

If you follow me on Twitter you may have figured out I’m otherwise occupied for right now, and have spotty internet access. But I happened to have a connection for a few minutes, and got a press release from the folks at Rutgers and the Chandra X-Ray Center about a supernova remnant, and the picture of this old exploded star was simply too cool not to share right away:

Pretty freaky, eh? [Click to ensupernovenate.]

The science involved is pretty interesting (see the Chandra page about it), but basically, this shows high-energy X-rays (in blue) and lower energy X-rays (in red) emitted by extremely hot gas in the supernova (the entire image is superposed on the correct background from the Digitized Sky Survey to show the positions of stars). This emission traces the magnetic fields in the gas (which is actually ionized and therefore a plasma), and this in turn has yielded some surprises for the scientists. Again read the page for the details, which are cool.

But in the meantime, the image itself gives an almost three-dimensional feel to the supernova remnant, doesn’t it? The roiling gas is expanding away from the blast site at thousands of kilometers per second, driven by the explosion that, when it blew, was the equivalent of more than the energy given off by the Sun over its entire lifetime!

And the shape is almost biological, too. It looks a lot like a cell seen under a microscope… though as we know, biological appearances can be very deceiving.

Image credits: X-ray: NASA/CXC/Rutgers/K.Eriksen et al.; Optical: DSS

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff, Pretty pictures

Comments (44)

  1. Mark Ormandy

    Woah! That is the most stunning astronomy image I’ve ever seen!

  2. Elias

    Yikes! Giant alien sky-jellyfish!

  3. Diederick

    What you least expect some astronomical phenomenon to look like seems always the prettiest. Odd.

    Anyway, the lower energy rays appear to be heading this way only, or is that an illusion?

  4. Strahlungsamt

    That’s one of those red things from DOOM!!

    Wait till it turns around you will see it’s one eye.

    Better have your cheat codes and firearms ready.

  5. Trebuchet

    Weirdest astro image I’ve ever seen.

    Slightly OT, but what’s with the background image when I clicked on the Twitter link? Looked like Martian bacteria fossils smoking cigarettes.

  6. “I kenna change the laws o’ physics! If I push ‘er any more, she’ll bloooooooow!”

  7. It’s the space amoeba from that one Star Trek episode!

  8. Ethyachk

    Dude, that’s just… Wow. Words fail. Shhka.

  9. Chris

    @Arik You beat me! I was thinking the same thing.

  10. Messier Tidy Upper

    Superluminous image. Love it. :-)

    PS. @7. Arik Rice & # 9. Chris – you mean the one from ‘The Immunity Syndrome’ in The Original Series? 😉

    PPS. @ 4. Strahlungsamt : LOL! Although given the size factor – YIKES!!! 😉

  11. Messier Tidy Upper

    If you follow me on Twitter you may have figured out I’m otherwise occupied for right now, and have spotty internet access.

    Have fun, BA! Looks nice. 8)

    I’m not surprised – that explains why moderation has been taking a while in the last day or two. Fair enough, you need a break too & I don’t begrudge you a holiday at all. In fact, I’m amazed & very impressed that you so consistently put together such great blog with such excellent articles every day. However, it would be really nice to have a little advance notice
    when you’re busy (or not as case may be!) with stuff like this. Some of us start worrying what’s happening to you very quickly. 😉

    @ 7. Arik Rice & #9.Chris :

    See :

    For link. :-)

    When it gets through moderation which I fear may take a while.

  12. Jenna

    One ring to rule them all… The eye sees all!!!

  13. Mike

    My new background. It looks like the space amoba from the next generation pilot. I think it was city on hte edge of tomorrow.

  14. Mike

    My bad the episode was “Encounter at Farpoint”

  15. The Picture is really amazing.I envy those scientists

  16. Absolutely gorgeous. I think I need to make a painting of that.

  17. Cool! How big is the object as it appears in this pic?

  18. I can REALLY picture this being pondered at length on the viewscreen of the original Enterprise’s bridge….

  19. Jim A

    @Arik – Beat me to it!

  20. Bill

    Antibodies, Bones. An-ti-bod-ies!!!

  21. I agree it looks alive. And I also agree, this is the most stunning picture I’ve seen on BA so far. Which when you consider the truly amazing images that come up here daily, goes a long way.

    That is just COOOOL.

  22. katwagner

    You never cease to amaze me with the photos you come up with. I’m cereal about that. (big toothy grin)

  23. DrBB

    My vote: Giant space jellyfish, bottom view.

    Actually what’s so amazing about it is that it’s real, since it looks so… well… not to put too fine a point on it… FAKE! Like a Dr-Who level special effect. The more recent series, maybe, not the old one, but even so.

    Still, that is the most amazing astropic I’ve seen since the Pillars of Creation. And knowing what it is makes it even more incredible.

  24. Jamey

    I’m just not sure what the purpose of linking to a twitter message was, when the only content of the twitter message was a link to another site. Why didn’t you just link to the final destination to start with?

    For that matter, why not just link to the image itself, and not the image hosted at some other bogus “social media” site? Does Twitter pay people to route linkage through them?

  25. Dustin

    That might be the most bizarre astronomy photo I’ve ever seen. It doesn’t look like something that should be real. It reminds me of the energy monster from that Outer Limits episode, “It Crawled Out of the Woodwork.” It just needs some lightning bolts.

  26. db26

    Looks like a microscopic organism to me. Imagine for a second, that all we know of the universe that we think is soooo huge, could really be infinitely small…a fit within a single smear on a slide within a microscope in a world so big that its incomprehensible.

  27. Steve Metzler

    That dangerous-looking object is definitely ‘Evil’, straight out of The Fifth Element. OMG! We’re not long for this Earth :-

  28. Don Gisselbeck

    It also looked fake to me, faked by smoke exploding out of some sort of membrane or multiple explosions in dust. What an amazing image, it’s going on my wallpaper.

  29. Oh come on, that’s clearly a metroid!

  30. Hang on a mo …! A beautiful image yes .. but examine why it is different from other images. Often in images of SNR or PN you can work out where the central star is (or was), trying to distinguish it from all the background stars and other objects etc. Why are there no background stars behind this SNR? The original x-ray image shows nothing but the SNR and a pitch black background – the original starry background was a full screen shot – why is the SNR blocking the light from the background stars? It isnt. Photoshop is great for imagery, but I find this image false and misleading, I know you can’t make this image with one exposure; but showing the xray emissions blocking light from stars behind is wrong isnt it?

  31. Messier Tidy Upper

    @ ^ sOnIc : Is it?

    It’s a composite image combining three different wavelengths – visual light and higher and lower X Ray ones – but that doesn’t make it “fake” exactly as it is showing what’s really there even though we wouldn’t see it like that just with our eyes. They’re honest about that and not claiming its anything else. It works for me.

    As for the central star being missing, well it’s a supernova that could have been a white dwarf that totally blew itself apart leaving no remnant – or a type II SN that ended in a black hole. Does it matter that much if we don’t /can’t work out where the central star is /was?

  32. Monkey Hybrid

    @ Messier Tidy Upper

    I’m not sure if you’ve understood what Sonic is saying here. The issue isn’t that it’s a composite image of different wavelengths. It is the fact optical data has been used for the general background but has then been discarded just for the area of the image taken up by the SNR. That is why the SNR seems to bounce right out of that image. Does look rather stunning, but also rather false when you realise why.

    Compare it with this version and you’ll see exactly what he means.

    So yes, very nice image, but I think the one in my link is much more ‘realistic’.

  33. Yes I know astrophotgraphy is layering different wavelengths, often in different strengths, to make the end image; but this composite image goes beyond that; using Photoshop tools to cut-out the SNR and place it ontop of a starry background in an unrealistic way.

    These figures are complete guesses, but the principle will be pretty much correct:
    R (red) x 10 mins
    G (green) x 10 mins
    B (blue) x 10 mins
    High-energy X-rays (blue) x 1 hour
    Lower energy X-rays (red) x 2 hours

    So we got 5 channels of light, the visible light is a combined 30mins of exposure, the xray emmissions are completely different and probably very long exposures (presumably radio astronomy anyway?). Combine those with transparency and you have a typical astro-photograph, showing a colour image of the stars with an amplified xray emmision visible on top.

    But, the difference here is that they have firstly used a photoshop tool to cut the circular SNR out from its black background, then placed this circular cut-out image on top of the full-size colour image without transparency, meaning it is blocking the background colour layers; blocking out the stars – this is “bad astro-photography”.

  34. I’ve thrown a quick version together myself, this is much more like the typical approach when doing composite images, and at least it doesn’t mislead the viewer into thinking the object is actually a ‘dark nebula’ blocking the starlight when it most definately is not:

  35. @sOnIc and anyone else interested:

    The main science driving this Chandra press release is the identification of faint stripes in the high-energy X-ray band (visible between 3 and 5 o’clock in the image). It is possible that these stripes are showing us the first direct evidence of a supernova remnant accelerating particles to cosmic ray energies! Please read the full press release here:

    As the Chandra Science Imager, it was a difficult task deciding how best to show off the beauty of this SNR while simultaneously conveying the groundbreaking science. The background stars provide a very nice contextual backdrop for the supernova remnant. Our team iterated over many versions of this image and ultimately decided that a few of the background stars were interfering with those high-energy stripes. We decided that masking out all stars within the remnant was a good compromise provided we A) explained that in the press release (which unfortunately was not picked up by other news outlets), and B) also made an unmasked version available from the website (as was linked to by Monkey Hybrid above).

    I understand the concerns raised. I take astronomy image processing very seriously, and we’ve tried to be as transparent (pun intended) as possible in creating a visually stunning and scientifically accurate image. Such is the challenge of multi-wavelength astronomy! Thanks to Phil for picking this one up and for all of your wonderful comments!

  36. Hi Joe and thank you for putting the record straight. This image really needs to have a note explaining it is not a real representation; but an ‘overlay’ to show the scale of the object. Many people who have read this page now think this object is actually out there and you could fly over to it for a closer look; or get swallowed by this enormous ‘blob’!

    I don’t wish to detract from the story, this is a most remarkable image of a SNR : )

  37. Pat Slane

    Hi sOnIc:

    I think you’ve misunderstood what Joe is saying about the image. This object really is out there, and (barring details like how long it would take to get there, and such) you really could fly over to it for a closer look. Of course, you wouldn’t be able to see the X-rays, but there is some optical emission from this SNR as well. But the object really is in the sky, along the line of sight to the stars that are shown in the image. The comments by others who note that the stars that should be seen “through” the SNR (some in front, some behind) have been masked out are correct. As Joe explains, when you leave those stars in it makes it hard to see those important new features that were identified in this study. (There is a bright star right near those stripe features on the right side, for example.) There was a no-mask verion provided right from the start:

    This one is very cool as well (though I’m obvously biased, as a co-author of the paper…). The point is that people should indeed think this object is actually out there amongst those stars. It is. It hasn’t been “photoshopped in”; some stars have been “photoshopped out” for clarity in the version Phil posted. (Oh, and for those wondering about a relic from the star that formed this object, this is the remnant of a Type Ia supernova. Those don’t leave a compact object behind; they represent the complete destruction of a white dwarf star.)

    As for getting swallowed, well…

  38. If not enhanced coloring and detail, this supernova remnant could not be photo-shopped any better, beautiful!

  39. Messier Tidy Upper

    @34. Monkey Hybrid :

    Compare it with this version and you’ll see exactly what he means. …[link snipped] … So yes, very nice image, but I think the one in my link is much more ‘realistic’.

    Ah, yes, I’m with you now. Yeah, your version linked there is better. Thanks. :-)

    @ #33 :

    As for the central star being missing, well it’s a supernova that could have been *was* a white dwarf that totally blew itself apart leaving no remnant – or a type II SN that ended in a black hole. Does it matter that much if we don’t /can’t work out where the central star is / was?

    [Now fixed.]

    Guh! (As they say in Futurama.) 😉

    This is Tycho’s Supernova – which *was* a white dwarf thus the missing central star is no surprise. So named because Tycho Brahe saw that star explode back in 1572. On seeing this “new star” Tycho literally couldn’t believe his eyes and had to get passers-by to confirm it. :-)

  40. My concern was the in the context of this blog post, and reading the comments left, many people appeared to be misled into thinking this was a ‘snap shot’ of the night sky, as if a single exposure looking at a dense/solid/opaque blob in space, which it is not.

    I am certainly not having a dig at the Chandra science behind this at all! And I’d prefer not to have a dig at Phil since this is the first time I’ve posted on his awesome blog and I have huge respect for everything he does. But I still stand by what I said, without explaining the ‘masking’ many people will, and have, got the wrong idea.

  41. Tribeca Mike

    The photo and your info are beyond insanely bitchin’, as we used to say at the drag strip. Amazing.


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