Magazine article Science News

Young, Nearby Supernova Remnant Shows Up

Magazine article Science News

Young, Nearby Supernova Remnant Shows Up

Article excerpt

When supernova RXJ0852.0-4622 made its debut, the plague had not yet decimated Europe, Mongolians still ruled China, and two different dynasties vied for control of Japan. Appearing low in the sky across central Europe and Asia, the stellar explosion may have shone as brightly as Venus and could have been visible for a month.

No one knows for sure, since astronomers have no eyewitness account of this celestial event. But two teams of researchers, who have now discovered the remnant of this previously unknown explosion, say it's the closest supernova to have graced terrestrial skies during the past 1,500 years. Indeed, evidence suggests that the remnant resides a mere 600 light-years from Earth and that the stellar explosion from which it arose appeared in the southern sky only about 700 years ago.

Bernd Aschenbach of the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Garching, Germany, discovered the remnant while examining X-ray images taken by the satellite ROSAT. Aschenbach had set out to analyze the most energetic emissions from an elderly supernova remnant called Vela, but when he viewed images recorded at energies greater than 1,300 electron-volts, he found a faint object adjacent to Vela and with a similar circular form.

That shape is a hallmark of the shell of gas and dust ejected into space by a supernova. This newly found remnant shows up only at high energies because it is young and has not yet had enough time to cool, Aschenbach says.

Estimates of the remnant's temperature and its size in the sky suggest that it is no older than 1,500 years and no farther than 1,300 light-years from Earth, he reports in the Nov. 12 Nature. "RXJ0852.0-4622 is likely to be the nearest supernova remnant in mankind's recent history."

In the same issue of Nature, Anatoli F. Iyudin, also of the Max Planck Institute and his colleagues, combine Aschenbach's observations with other measurements to place tighter limits on the remnant's distance and the time of the explosion. …

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