Human Journey

Chandra Marks 10th Birthday With Space Puffball

Shortly after the Chandra X-ray Observatory opened its eye for the first time in 1999, the orbiting probe snapped its first picture of a supernova remnant about 190,000 light-years away that’s lovingly called 1E 0102.2-7219—or E0102 for short.


—Image courtesy NASA/CXC/SAO

Yesterday, ten years to the day after the probe’s July 23 launch, the Chandra team released this updated version of the supernova’s portrait:


—X-ray (NASA/CXC/MIT/D.Dewey et al. & NASA/CXC/SAO/J.DePasquale); Optical (NASA/STScI)

In the immortal word of Keanu Reeves: Whoa.

The brilliant new picture (click here for a larger version) combines Chandra’s x-ray data with a visible-light image from its orbiting partner the Hubble Space Telescope. Together the two orbiters show the supernova’s hot outer blast wave as a blue halo around the cooler inner material, with bright stars glittering in the background.

The green blob in the lower right is a cloud of gas and dust being illuminated by one very massive star (not pictured), probably not unlike the one that went boom and created E0102.

While the x-ray data add some great visual details to the shot, Chandra also contributed to the scientific analysis of the remnant. The x-rays, for instance, have helped astronomers get a better picture of the geometry of the explosion.

That’s because x-rays with different levels of energy shine differently for Chandra. Since energy levels are linked to direction, scientists can tell how the object’s components are moving relative to each other.

To us, E0102 may look like a colorful cotton ball in space. But Chandra reveals that the supernova is actually shaped more like a cylinder, and we’re simply seeing the rounded face. There’s a nifty animation of this here, in case pictures speak loader than words…

Btw, in its ten years of data collection, it seems Chandra has done its share of capturing puffballs in outer space. Here’s a “rogues gallery” of some of the more famous explosions:


Tycho’s Remnant

  • About 7,500 light-years away
  • Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe saw light from the initial explosion in 1572
  • Chandra snapped it in April 2003

—X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO, Infrared: NASA/JPL-Caltech; Optical: MPIA, Calar Alto, O.Krause et al.


Kepler’s Remnant

  • About 13,000 light-years away
  • Astronomer Johannes Kepler was among the first to see it as a new object in the sky in 1604
  • Chandra studied it from April to August 2006

—Image courtesy NASA/CXC/NCSU/S.Reynolds et al.


Cassiopeia A

  • About 10,000 light-years away
  • Discovered in the constellation Cassiopeia via radio observations in 1947
  • Chandra snapped it in December 2007

—Image courtesy NASA/CXC/MIT/UMass Amherst/M.D.Stage et al.



  • About 7,000 light-years away
  • The brightest supernova ever seen from Earth, witnessed in Asia, Europe, and the Middle East in A.D. 1006
  • Chandra snapped it in April 2003

—X-ray: NASA/CXC/Rutgers/G.Cassam-Chenai, J.Hughes et al.; Radio: NRAO/AUI/NSF/GBT/VLA/Dyer, Maddalena & Cornwell; Optical: Middlebury College/F.Winkler, NOAO/AURA/NSF/CTIO Schmidt & DSS

  • julia

    amazing. I am learning so much. Thanks for making it so palatable (actually very clever) for a non-scientist.

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