Friday, July 4, 2014
For those of you who don't get to see fireworks today (July 4), here is an image of cosmic fireworks for your enjoyment. The glowing ring on our picture (taken with the Hubble Space Telescope) shows material ejected long ago from a star whose total explosion we saw in 1987. Recently, earlier debris from the star has been hit by the fastest moving material from the star's final explosion. The shock of collision has set knots of thicker material in the ring to glow like a necklace of sparklers.
The dramatic explosion at the end of the life of a star is called a "supernova," and this particular supernova is located in one of our closest neighbor galaxies, the Large Magellanic Cloud, about 168,000 light years away. We wish it were closer, but a visible supernova is a rare event. This was actually the first supernova explosion we have been treated to since the invention of the telescope in 1609-1610. It's been given the extremely clever name Supernova 1987A (the first such explosion seen in 1987.)
The huge star whose explosion we saw in 1987 had been losing some of its mass in earlier periods of its life and was surrounded by a cloud of its own debris. Later a wind of hot particles had blown from the star as it went through a different stage of its development. That wind had made a cavity in the gas around the star.
Now the material from the star's actual explosion, which has been moving for 27 years at great speed, has reached the inner walls of this cavity and is colliding with thicker blobs of the older material. That's the glowing ring we see so clearly in the Hubble image.
If you want to see a time lapse movie made of Hubble images taken each year as the ring started lighting up, you can see it at:
Happy fireworks day!