The Chandra X-ray Observatory, the most powerful X-ray observatory ever built, has generated over 23 trillion bytes of data since it launched on July 23, 1999. From its highly elliptical orbit around Earth (the observatory makes it one-third of the way to the moon), Chandra has spotted some of the strangest, most charismatic and curious objects in the solar system … and beyond.
By exploring the the hottest regions of our universe with X-ray vision, Chandra is helping scientists unravel some of the most pressing mysteries we face today: How did our universe begin? How will it all end?
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NASA recently released a slew of new images taken by Chandra in partnership with other telescopes like the Hubble Space Telescope. Here are the most stunning of the bunch.
This image of the cyclonic Cartwheel Galaxy tells the celestial tale in which one galaxy plowed right through another. This intergalactic collision, in turn, generated a slew of new stars and hot gases (seen here in purple).
Chandra snapped this image of gases—in hues of pink and blue—bursting from M82, a distant star-forming galaxy over 11 million light-years away from Earth.
Supernova 1987A (SN 1987A)
This strange celestial object is the supernova 1987A. Shortly after astronomers spotted the massive stellar explosion in 1987, Chandra imaged the resulting X-ray shock wave, shown here in—you guessed it—blue.
The Chandra X-ray image (left) reveals a ring of multimillion-degree gas produced by the collision of an outward-moving supernova shock wave with a ring of cool circumstellar gas. The optical image (right) from the Hubble Space Telescope shows a ring of bright spots that are also caused by the shock wave hitting the cool gas.
Long before the explosion of the massive star that produced Supernova 1987A, most of its outer layers expanded away in a slowly moving stellar wind that formed a vast cloud of gas. Later, a high-speed wind from the star carved out a cavity about 1 light year in diameter in the cool gas cloud. As the supernova shock wave plows deeper into the cool cloud the ring should become larger and much brighter in both optical and X-ray light.
Chandra teamed up with Hubble to snap this incredible image of Eta Carinae, a stellar duo of orbiting stars in the midst of a death spiral. Astronomers believe these twirling stars, which are found in our own galaxy, may soon go supernova together.
Even though the Helix Nebula gives off Eye of Sauron vibes, the universe is safe. This image—taken in collaboration by Chandra, Hubble, the Spitzer Space Telescope, and NASA’s Galaxy Evolution Explorer—shows the planetary nebula phase of a star’s demise. Here, the dying star has shrunk and has begun to slough off cosmic gas and dust.
BONUS: First Light – Cassiopeia A
When Chandra booted up in 1999, it turned toward the supernova remnant Cassiopeia A. The glowing debris shown in this souped-up version of the “first light” image released just last year tell the story of a massive star that died in a brilliant stellar explosion.
Astronomers have narrowed down the date of this celestial event to 1680. There are no records of people witnessing the supernova, but it would have been one of the brightest objects in the sky at the time.
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