Supernova Explosion Ripped Star’s Guts Out

A massive supernova explosion that destroyed a faraway star apparently turned the left over stellar corpse inside out as well, scientists say.

This two-panel graphic compares an artist's illustration (left) of a simplified picture of the inner layers of a star just before it exploded to form the Cassiopeia A supernova remnant with a Chandra image (right) of what we see today.  The different elements are represented by different colors:  iron (blue), sulfur and silicon (green), and magnesium, neon and oxygen (red). The Chandra image uses the same color scheme to show the distribution of iron, sulfur and magnesium in the supernova remnant.  A comparison of the illustration and the Chandra element map shows clearly that most of the iron, which according to theoretical models of the pre-supernova was originally on the inside of the star, is now located near the outer edges of the remnant.

This two-panel graphic compares an artist’s illustration (left) of a simplified picture of the inner layers of a star just before it exploded to form the Cassiopeia  A supernova remnant with a Chandra image (right) of what we see today. 

Using NASA’s Chandra X-Ray Observatory spacecraft, a team of researchers found that Cassiopeia A (Cas A) — which is located about 11,000 light-years from Earth and exploded 300 years ago from our perspective — is wearing its “guts” on the outside.

Before it went supernova, the star Cas A likely had an iron-rich core that was surrounded by layers of sulfur and silicon, which were in turn overlaid by magnesium, neon and oxygen, researchers said. Chandra’s observations showed that, after the explosion, most of that iron has now migrated to Cas A’s outer edges.

Further, much of the silicon, sulfur and magnesium are now found on the outside of the still-expanding debris shell. Overall, this distribution of elements suggests that an instability in the supernova explosion process somehow turned the star inside out, researchers said. These latest Chandra observations are the most detailed study ever made of X-ray-emitting debris in Cas A, or in any other supernova remnant, they added.

The researchers estimate that the total amount of X-ray emitting debris has a mass just over three times that of our sun. Researchers found clumps of almost pure iron, indicating that this material must have been produced by nuclear reactions near the center of the pre-supernova Cas A.

The Chandra X-ray Observatory launched aboard the space shuttle Columbia in 1999. It’s one of NASA’s “Great Observatories,” a class of space telescopes that also includes Spitzer and the iconic Hubble Space Telescope.

Read more from LiveScience.

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