Science: A Galactic Shockwave

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The Hubble Space Telescope took this image of the outer edge of a shockwave generated in our galaxy by an exploding supernova, and witnessed on earth in the year 1006 AD. The entire diameter of this massive galactic ripple is about 60 light years, and it’s still expanding at a speed of 6 million miles per hour. From the NASA Image of the Day Gallery.

Around May 1, 1006 A.D., observers from Africa to Europe to the Far East witnessed and recorded the arrival of light from what is now called SN 1006, a tremendous supernova explosion caused by the final death throes of a white dwarf star nearly 7,000 light-years away. The supernova was probably the brightest star ever seen by humans, and surpassed Venus as the brightest object in the night time sky, only to be surpassed by the moon. It was visible even during the day for weeks, and remained visible to the naked eye for at least two and a half years before fading away.

It wasn’t until the mid-1960s that radio astronomers first detected a nearly circular ring of material at the recorded position of the supernova. The ring was almost 30 arcminutes across, the same angular diameter as the full moon. The size of the remnant implied that the blast wave from the supernova had expanded at nearly 20 million miles per hour over the nearly 1,000 years since the explosion occurred.

Today, SN 1006 has a diameter of nearly 60 light-years, and it is still expanding at roughly 6 million miles per hour. Even at this tremendous speed, however, it takes observations typically separated by years to see significant outward motion of the shock wave against the grid of background stars. In the Hubble image as displayed, the supernova would have occurred far off the lower right corner of the image, and the motion would be toward the upper left.

(Hat tip: Abu Lahab.)

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Last updated: 2021-06-05 2:51 pm PDT
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