When a massive star or a white dwarf ends its life in a majestic, albeit terribly violent, stellar explosion known as a supernova, traces of the dead star still linger in the cosmos. The leftover debris, mostly made up of gas, floats around in fragile streaks of charged material, collectively referred to as a supernova remnant.
One of the largest supernova remnants in the Milky Way has been dubbed HBH3. It is a fascinating gaseous structure that sits 6,400 light-years away from our planet, in the Cassiopeia constellation, and which NASA describes as “the fading ghost of a long-dead star.”
The space agency has recently unveiled a mesmerizing photo of HBH3, capturing the shredded “veins” of the supernova remnant.
Taken by the Spitzer Space Telescope eight years ago, the dazzling snapshot showcases quite a large swarth of sky, on which the slowly dissipating gas streaks that make up the supernova remnant intertwine with the swirling clouds of three nearby stellar nurseries.
The image is an infrared view of HBH3, which glows in a pale red hue at wavelengths of 4.5 microns, longer than those of the surrounding area, mapped by Spitzer at 3.6-micron wavelengths.
To spot the supernova remnant in the image below, simply follow the “thin, red veins of energized gas,” which signal HBH3’s presence in the field of view, notes NASA.
“The branches of glowing material are most likely molecular gas that was pummeled by a shockwave generated by the supernova. The energy from the explosion energized the molecules and caused them to radiate infrared light,” space agency officials wrote in the photo description.
According to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, which manages the space telescope for NASA, Spitzer captured the image on March 2010, with the help of its Infrared Array Camera (IRAC).
As NASA points out, the three stellar nurseries accompanying HBH3 stretch out farther than we can see, churning their puffy, star-forming clouds beyond the edges of the photo.
Imaged by the Herschel Space Observatory in the photo below, these stellar nurseries are designated as W3, W4, and W5. They were named after astronomer Gart Westerhout, who in the 1950s identified them as sources of radio wavelengths in the Milky Way, and represent some of the most active star-forming regions in the outer reaches of our galaxy.
A bustling factory of massive stars, W3 alone “draws from a total reservoir of raw material equivalent to several hundred thousand times the mass of our sun,” notes the European Space Agency.
HBH3 is equally enthralling. The massive supernova remnant spans 150 light-years in diameter and is also considered one of the oldest in the Milky Way. Astronomers believe that the star which spawned HBH3 gave its final throes anytime between 80,000 to one million years ago. Aside from infrared wavelengths, HBH3 also emits optical light and was first spotted in 1966 with the help of radio telescopes.
In 2016, the Fermi Gamma-Ray Telescope picked up gamma ray emissions coming from the neighborhood of the supernova remnant, possibly originating in one of the adjacent stellar nurseries. The theory is that charged particles from HBH3 wafted toward either W3, W4, or W5 and interacted with the molecular gas, sparking gamma rays.