A beautiful photo … but what is it?

This beautiful photo caught my attention recently.  I love the soft complex textures of the yellow/orange material, being contained within a glowing blue bubble.

  • Can you guess what the object is?
  • How big is it?
  • What is it made of?
  • Where would you find it?

At first, I guessed it might be some kind of microscopic organism, because it reminded me of photos like these – 1, 2, 3, 4.

Read the rest of this post to discover what this object actually is!

This photo was taken by NASA’s Chandra X-Ray Observatory.

  • The object is Tycho’s Supernova Remnant – the remains of a star which Tycho Brahe saw explode in November 1572.
  • It’s about 20 light-years across (about 189,000 billion kilometers).
  • It consists of extremely hot gas (many millions of degrees).
  • It’s located in the constellation of Cassiopeia, and it’s about 13,000 light-years away from us.

The photo is actually a composite of three separate X-ray photos.  The colours are artificial, and indicate the energy of the X-rays.

Tycho's Supernova Remnant (low X-ray energy)

Tycho's Supernova Remnant (medium X-ray energy)

Tycho's Supernova Remnant (high X-ray energy)

The colours are explained on Chandra’s website:

Low and medium energy X-rays in red and green show expanding debris from the supernova explosion. High energy X-rays in blue reveal the blast wave, a shell of extremely energetic electrons.

The blast wave is expanding at about 4,000 kilometers per second!  That’s about 14 million km/hour!

The supernova remnant is about 189,000 billion kilometers across, which is inconceivably huge!  In comparison, the Earth is an invisibly small dot:

Tycho's Supernova Remnant with Earth for comparison

This object is so colossal, it would take over 14 billion Earths to reach from one side to the other!

Credit for these images:  NASA/CXC/Chinese Academy of Sciences/F. Lu et al (not copyrighted).



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