Cosmic Fireworks: Stunning Images Captured of Supernova and Black Holes (with pictures and a video)

They are firecrackers in the sky and they are massive. The ultra-modern Chandra X-ray Telescope has observed numerous supernovae and copious amount of X-rays in the Carina Nebula. NASA recently released pictures it snapped up using a radio telescope that shows a black hole gobbling up matter in the Centaurus A galaxy. In cosmic terms, both Carina and Centaurus A are close by, but not too close. We are lucky enough to have a great view of the violent and stunning explosions and be awed by them, while coming to no harm. We examine both in this article, and with stunning pictures.

Violent Scene 1:

Location: Carina, a stellar nursery and a violent neighborhood, about 7500 light years from Earth

Protagonist: The Chandra X-ray telescope, the best eye we have to see the X-ray band with

Observation: Streams of X-rays detected, which are signatures of massive supernovae explosions

Verdict: Awe-inspiring

Let’s get straight to the image.

The Carina Galaxy in X-Ray (Image Courtesy: NASA, Chandra (CXC))

Get a bigger image here. (And you know you want to… you just have to get a bigger image!)

This is a false color image, because we are actually seeing in X-rays. The red is for low energy X-rays and blue is for the high energy ones. Shades of green and yellow represent intermediate energies.

Here’s what magical about the image: It has been made up of 22 separate images through an exposure time of 1.2 million seconds! It’s ultra-high resolution, and amazingly detailed. We get to see through a lot of dust, that optical radiation just cannot penetrate.

Remember that all the light in the image represents X-rays, which are very energetic. Look at the halo, the diffused purple glow around the central arc. That represents the X-rays being thrown out by ejected materials and charged stellar winds ramming into interstellar matter, and being shocked into X-rays emission. (Here’s the simple rule of thumb from physics: If you have charged particles moving fast and you suddenly stop them, the energy is emitted suddenly as electromagnetic waves, which, in this case, is X-rays. The energy of the EM waves is dependent on how fast the particles were moving and how suddenly they were stopped.)

What’s the big deal? Well, it seems that Carina has been producing very massive stars over the last few millions of years. These stars are so massive that they do not survive too long (Our Sun is a medium sized star and thus it is billed to last for 10 billion years; not so for many giant stars, which can die after living brightly for a short period of 10 million years). These stars die in extravagant explosions, called supernovae, which can outshine an entire galaxy for a few seconds. Further, Chandra has actually managed to count the number of heavy stars (those emitting X-rays) in the neighborhood and it turns out to be greater than previously thought.

We just wanted to show you, as a bonus, what the Carina actually looks like in optical light. It reveals a whole lot more stars, since there are many which don’t emit X-rays.

The majesty of the Carina Nebula seen in optical range (Courtesy: NASA, CXC)

(Enlarge here! You’ve got to!)

Violent Scene 2:

Location: Centaurus A, a local galaxy in the Centaurus constellation; about 12 million light years away from Earth

Protagonist: The TANAMI project, various radio telescopes

Observation: Radio images reveal giant plumes of radio waves in jets driven by the galactic supermassive black hole

Verdict: Scary and beautiful

The Centaurus A galaxy is an elliptic galaxy (our Milky Way is a spiral galaxy), having a central supermassive black hole. NASA’s radio telescopes, under the TANAMI project, have now glimpsed the very heart of the galaxy and what they see is awe-inspiring. The central black hole throws out matter in jets, as matter from surrounding stars are yanked in by the black hole.

The Central Black Hole in Centaurus. Notice the jets on either sides. (Courtesy: NASA)

The black hole is estimated to be 55  milliontimes more massive than the Sun. Advanced interferometry techniques enhance the quality of the images. Interestingly, NASA’s Fermi Gamma Ray Space Telescope has detected very high energy in the central parts of Centaurus A. Where these come from is a mystery.

Centaurus as seen in the optical range of the EM spectrum
Centaurus seen in a mixed wavelength scheme, containing X-rays and infrareds (orange). (Courtesy: NASA, CXC)

Enjoy the images. Also, there is more information in a nice little video NASA has prepared. Hereit is!

Remember the golden words. The Universe is not queerer than we suppose; it is queerer than we can suppose.

Published by

Debjyoti Bardhan

Is a science geek, currently pursuing some sort of a degree (called a PhD) in Physics at TIFR, Mumbai. An enthusiastic but useless amateur photographer, his most favourite activity is simply lazing around. He is interested in all things interesting and scientific.