Hubble Spots Supernova Blast Wave 2,400 Light Years Away


The Hubble Space Telescope has provided some amazing views of the universe. It’s easy to become complacent after seeing so many remarkable images, but Hubble can still wow us after 30 years. In a recent observation, the aging space telescope captured the expanding edge of a supernova blast wave. Yes, that luminous wave above is real, though it may look like something from Star Trek. 

This barrier of light is about 2,400 light-years from Earth in the constellation Cygnus and is part of a massive structure called the Cygnus Loop. The full structure covers a portion of the sky 36 times larger than the full moon, but most of it is outside the visible spectrum. The visible parts are the most famous, of course, known as the Veil Nebula. 

The Cygnus Loop and the Veil Nebula are the results of a massive supernova explosion between 10,000 and 20,000 years ago. The star that produced the cloud has never been identified, but it was likely 20 times larger than the sun. That suggests it’s now a neutron star remnant someplace in or near the Cygnus Loop. 

Even after all these millennia, the shockwave from the blast is still expanding at more than 200 miles per second (350 kilometers per second). Thus, it’s covered 60 light-years since the supernova. From its vantage orbiting Earth, the Hubble Space Telescope can focus on the shockwave. Matter and energy ejected from the doomed star interact with low-density interstellar material, causing the glowing loops seen in the image. 

The full Cygnus Loop nebula as seen in ultraviolet.

Hubble began operation in 1990, and work on its primary mirror began way back in 1979. Here we are in 2020, and this instrument can capture an incredible image of a supernova shockwave 2,400 light-years distant. It’s even more impressive when you remember that Hubble’s primary mirror has a substantial spherical aberration flaw — NASA had to install “eyeglasses” inside Hubble to correct for it. The telescope clearly has a very good prescription. 

Still, the keen-eyed Hubble is getting on toward the end of its life. Its final service mission was in 2009 before the end of the Space Shuttle program. The crew on that mission (STS-125) installed new gyroscopes to stabilize the satellite, but several of them have now failed. Scientists hope that Hubble holds together until its successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, begins operation. After numerous delays, the Webb telescope is currently scheduled to launch in late 2021.

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