Tucked away in a small galaxy that whips around the Milky Way, there shines an especially bright remnant of a supernova.
The quest to learn more about how the universe works often yields stunning and majestic imagery. When astronomers directed NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory towards a nearby place called the Large Magellanic Cloud, they beheld the brightest supernova in any satellite galaxy of the Milky Way.
Stars grow and die. When they reach the end, they erupt in a grand finale that disperses the heavy elements necessary for the universe to look the way it does today. Astronomers often peer into the Large Magellanic Cloud, a dwarf galaxy that looks like a smudge in the southern sky, to learn about this epic final phase of stellar life.
The star that collapsed to form this glorious object, called N132D, was about 15 times bigger than the Sun, according to a NASA Chandra tweet published on Thursday. And though the large star is now gone, its supernova remnant is not an idle grave.
Where the rim is brighter, and in particular near the lower right part of the ring, there are telltale signs of a colossal bombardment.
Chandra has been observing objects like N132D since it began its science mission in July 1999. Since then, it’s built up a wealth of knowledge about the high-caliber events popping off across the night sky. Chandra officials wrote in 1999 that they think the N132D supernova remnant released an expanding shock wave that lights up when it bombards a nearby dust and gas cloud. The broad size of the supernova remnant suggests the shock wave has “swept up material equal to that of 600 suns,” Chandra officials wrote.
Thanks to Chandra’s X-ray vision, astronomers know the collision is producing 10 million-degree gas.
This thrilling phenomenon, which is playing out 160,000 light-years from Earth, is critical in making life possible. This supernova remnant “belongs to a rare class of oxygen-rich remnants,” Chandra officials wrote in 2008. “Most of the oxygen that we breathe on Earth is thought to have come from explosions similar to this one.”
In 2020, scientists conducted a spectral analysis of the supernova remnant to learn more about what dispersed into the interstellar medium when the star died. The oxygen was largely apparent in optical data. But Chandra’s X-ray data helped the team learn about abundances of other heavy elements present in the blast site, like neon, magnesium, silicon, sulfur and iron.
Thanks to Chandra’s orbit more than 86,000 miles above Earth, the space telescope observes X-rays that would otherwise be absorbed by the planet’s atmosphere.