Happy Birthday, Chandra X-Ray Observatory

Four new images of supernova remnants celebrate the telescope's 15 years of awesome discoveries


Chandra's powerful X-ray eyes can pick out the dynamics of this exploding star – named SN 1572 for the year it was first observed – centuries after it went boom. The blue color represents electrons flying on an outward-bound shock wave. The red and green colors depict super-hot stellar debris, heated to millions of degrees by a reverse wave traveling back into the electron cloud. Chandra's data have helped astrophysicists pinpoint Tycho's distance from Earth at between 8,000 to 9,800 light-years from Earth, or 2.5 to 3 kiloparsecs.NASA/CXC/SAO

Crab Nebula

The Crab Nebula is about 6,500 light-years distant from Earth, but is nonetheless the source of regular pulses of radiation hitting the Earth 30 times a second – caused by the super-dense, fast-spinning neutron star at its center. According to NASA, this Chandra image shows the Crab's lower-energy X-rays in red, medium energy in green, and highest-energy X-rays. in blue. This nebula made science news in 2011 when "an enormous gamma-ray flare five times more powerful than any previously detected burst from the region," as we wrote at the time. No subsequent outbreaks of bright green and very angry giants were reported.NASA/CXC/SAO


G292.0+1.8 lacks a catchy name, but it's one of only three known oxygen-rich supernova remnants (SNRs) in the Milky Way galaxy. This image shows the dance of elements in G292-point-yadda's debris cloud, including oxygen in yellow and orange, magnesium in green, and silicon and sulfur in blue. Astrophysicists believe that SNRs containing abundant oxygen are fundamental sources of heavy elements, the matter needed to form every living or inanimate thing in the galaxy. About 4.8 kiloparsecs or 15-20,000 light years from Earth, G292.0+01.8 is also remarkable for the off-center pulsar wind nebula within it: the remains of the original star that exploded, and revealed to Chandra by its X-ray emissions.NASA/CXC/SAO


3C58 is not a supercilious human-cyborg relations 'droid in the next Star Wars sequel (at least as far as we know). Rather it is a supernova remnant with a fast-spinning pulsar at its center, detected thanks to data from Chandra. The pulsar is ringed by a thick torus of X-ray emissions. The observatory's data also suggest 3C58 has a relatively cool surface temperature of just under a million degrees Celsius, at theoretical odds with its youthful estimated age of 840-odd years. Maybe it's older; or maybe the intense conditions within 3C58 have spurred a high neutrino flux, with the neutrinos carting away energy and lowering its surface heat. Another possibility is "that an exotic form of subatomic matter is present," as Chandra's Harvard team noted in 2004. In this image, low, medium and high-energy X-rays detected by Chandra are red, green and blue respectively.