Multicolor image of supernova remnant RCW 86
Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO & ESA; Infared: NASA/JPL-Caltech/B. Williams (NCSU)

A Guest Star, Identified

The first documented supernova to be observed by humans was recorded in A. D. 185 by Chinese astronomers. The mysterious "guest star", SN 185, was a new stellar object, further proof that the sky was not immutable, and remained visible for 8 months. Modern astronomers suspected that this explosion left behind a remnant called RCW 86, a suspicion only confirmed in A. D. 2006 by measuring the speed of expansion of the remnant, and so determining its age. The image above shows a new, multi-color view of RCW 86 in the infrared (in red) and in the X-ray regime (in blue and green). The infrared image was obtained by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope, while the X-ray image is from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory. The X-ray data show that there is no compact object left behind by the explosion, which means that SN 185/RCW 86 was produced by the total destruction of a white dwarf star. Astronomers call this type of explosion a Type Ia supernova, and use these explosions to measure distances to some of the furthest objects in the Universe. Identifying SN 185 with a Type Ia event helps astronomers better understand these more distant explosions, and furthers the prize-winning quest to understand the mysterious dark energy driving the Universe apart.
Published: December 12, 2011

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Page Author: Dr. Michael F. Corcoran
Last modified Sunday, 18-Dec-2011 20:10:29 EST