NASA sheds light on a massive supernova dating back to Middle Ages

The supernova is so old that it is believed to have been described in a passage of Shakespeare's "Hamlet."
Chris Young
The Tycho supernova images by IXPE.
The Tycho supernova images by IXPE.

NASA/ASI/MSFC/INAF/R. Ferrazzoli, et al. 

A group of scientists has shed new light on a star that exploded in a supernova more than 450 years ago, blasting particles out into space at close to the speed of light.

The Tycho supernova blast released as much energy as the Sun would emit over ten billion years, NASA pointed out in a statement. The blast was visible to many humans on Earth way back in 1572.

Now, astronomers have used NASA's Imaging X-ray Polarimetry to study the incredibly long-lasting aftereffects of the supernova called Tycho. By doing so, they were able to gain new insight into how the massive explosion accelerated particles incredibly close to the speed of light.

A massive supernova dating back to the Middle Ages

Though Tycho will have lit up a small section of the sky back in the Middle Ages, astronomers were able to utilize NASA's Imaging X-ray Polarimetry (IXPE) space observatory to investigate the remnants of that colossal explosion.

The researchers, who outlined their findings in a paper in The Astrophysical Journal, used IXPE to reveal the geometry of the magnetic fields close to Tycho's shock wave. They were able to do this because the shock wave is still propagating through the cosmos from the initial explosion, meaning it can be observed from Earth.

NASA sheds light on a massive supernova dating back to Middle Ages
An artist's impression of IXPE.

"As one of the so-called historical supernovae, Tycho was observed by humanity in the past and had a lasting social and even artistic impact," Dr. Riccardo Ferrazzoli, a researcher at the Italian National Institute for Astrophysics in Rome, which partners with NASA on the IXPE mission, explained in NASA's statement. "It's exciting to be here, 450 years after its first appearance in the sky, to see this object again with new eyes and to learn from it."

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NASA explained in its statement that Tycho was first observed by Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe in 1572, as well as by other stargazers of the time. Some believe it may have also been spotted by William Shakespeare, who is believed to have been eight years old at the time, as a "bright star," fitting the description is described in an early passage of "Hamlet."

Shedding new light on the "order and chaos" of supernovae

Today, we know that Tycho is a Type Ia supernova, which takes place when a white dwarf star in a binary system consumes and obliterates its companion star, leading to a cataclysmic explosion.

Using the IXPE data, the researchers analyzed the shape of Tycho's magnetic field to help gain a better understanding of how particles are accelerated by supernovae.

They also measured the X-ray polarization of the shock waves, helping them shed new light on how Tycho and other supernovae accelerate these particles closer to the speed of light than the most powerful particle accelerators developed by humans.

"The process by which a supernova remnant becomes a giant particle accelerator involves a delicate dance between order and chaos," Patrick Slane, senior astrophysicist at the Center for Astrophysics at Harvard in Cambridge, Massachusetts, said in the statement. "Strong and turbulent magnetic fields are required, but IXPE is showing us that there is a large-scale uniformity, or coherence, involved as well, extending right down to the sites where the acceleration is taking place."

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