NASA Image Captures Electrifying Aftermath of Star's Death

The massive stellar explosion, scientists believe, might date back to the Middle Ages.

Monisha Ravisetti Former Science Writer
Monisha Ravisetti was a science writer at CNET. She covered climate change, space rockets, mathematical puzzles, dinosaur bones, black holes, supernovas, and sometimes, the drama of philosophical thought experiments. Previously, she was a science reporter with a startup publication called The Academic Times, and before that, was an immunology researcher at Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York. She graduated from New York University in 2018 with a B.A. in philosophy, physics and chemistry. When she's not at her desk, she's trying (and failing) to raise her online chess rating. Her favorite movies are Dunkirk and Marcel the Shell with Shoes On.
Monisha Ravisetti
3 min read
A hot pink, transluscent blob is seen in the center of the image. All around, and behind, you can see lots of brilliant stars against the dark blanket of space. Some are bigger than others, some are brighter.

Three very strong telescopes combined to bring you this image of a supernova's graveyard.


In the 14th century, while bloodshed from the Hundred Years' War spilled onto Earth, remnants of a dead star might have shone in the sky. 

NASA announced Monday that three powerful telescopes -- the Hubble, the Spitzer and the Chandra X-Ray Observatory -- joined forces to study debris stemming from a white dwarf's death. Think of these stellar remains as the overall aftermath of the star's final moments, the environment in which it met its demise.

The astronomers who parsed all this cosmic data say they've managed to glean enough clues to decode an exquisite timeline of the destroyed star's violent detonation long, long ago.

"This data provides scientists a chance to 'rewind' the movie of the stellar evolution that has played out since and figure out when it got started," Chandra team members wrote in a statement.  A preprint of these results can be seen here.

Eventually, this could elucidate when and where the stellar body might have blown up in the first place, but as the team began piecing together that story, it also realized something immensely fascinating about one particular part of the supernova's remains. 

An aspect of the star's mortal evidence, located some 160,000 light-years away from Earth in a small galaxy called the Large Magellanic Cloud, might have emitted luminescence post-explosion that finally reached our planet during the Middle Ages. Yes, that means it decked the night sky within the same year we attribute to the apotheosis of the Ming Dynasty and most tragic point of the Black Plague.

The remnant is named SNR 0519-69.0, or SNR 0519 for short. (SNR stands for supernova remnant, as you might have guessed.)

Three images are seen in this. On the left is a white dwarf star feasting on a much larger companion, in the middle is a supernova and on the right is the resulting SNR.

Here's a general idea of the thermonuclear explosion that led to the white dwarf star's Type 1a supernova, and eventual SNR.

Chandra X-Ray Observatory

On the upper end of their estimate, the scientists believe the remnant's deep-space light might have appeared about 670 years ago. However, based on its space-borne trajectory, they put forth another scenario. It's likely, the team suggests, "the material has slowed down since the initial explosion and that the explosion happened more recently than 670 years ago."

This means the explosion itself could've legitimately occurred during the Middle Ages.

Whoa, but what am I looking at here?

In the striking image released alongside this discovery, SNR 0519 seems to be a translucent, magenta blob against the star-studded canvas of space. 

What you're looking at is a conglomerate of the telescopes' observations, overlaid to create a full diagram of the stellar fragment. Let's break it down.

A thin, pink blob is seen against the blanket of space. This is the same image as the header.

Whoever picked the color combination for this space pic is probably my hero.


The strong, pinkish-red areas and white wispy trails come from Hubble optical data to indicate the SNR's outline. If you look closely, you'll also see some green splotches, blue marks and purple halo-like designs leaking from the two. Those are colorized X-Ray observations that represent, respectively, low, medium and high energies emitted. Some overlaps of Chandra observations also show up as white-ish areas, and the brightest regions of the image dictate the slowest-moving material. 

If you're wondering about Spitzer, this machine was more of a behind-the-scenes helper. It provided lots of data integral to the timeline goal of the team's study. 

Of note, Hubble images of SNR from 2010, 2011 and 2020, NASA says, also measured speeds of the material provoked by the explosion's blast wave. Put together, this led to the conclusion that the remnant spurted out within a whopping range of 3.8 million to 5.5 million miles per hour -- the higher end of that is the part that supports the team's 670 years estimation for the initial eruption.

But again, NASA urges that "these results imply that some of the blast wave has crashed into dense gas around the remnant, causing it to slow down as it traveled," deeming the other scenario to have a solid likelihood, too.