Skip to main content

Watch As a Supernova Morphs and Its Speedy Shock Waves Reverse

A new video from NASA shows how a supernova explosion morphs and changes during a 13-year period, The growing debris field, known as Cassiopeia A or Cas A, likely was generated after a star explosion in 1680. New data from NASA's Chandra X-Ray Observatory shows that even an old explosion can change in subtle ways during a human lifetime.

If you watch the arrows in the video closely, you can see shock waves in blue reverberating through space in data collected between 2000 and 2013. The shock waves are producing X-ray emissions and accelerating particles to high speeds.

The video combines X-ray data from Chandra with observations from the Hubble Space Telescope, which observes in visual and infrared light. Hubble's data was held constant to emphasize the changes Chandra observed over time, according to Chandra personnel.

Related: NASA Unveils Amazing Cosmic Views as Chandra X-Ray Observatory Turns 20

"As the blast wave travels outwards at speeds of about 11 million miles [18 million km] per hour, it encounters surrounding material and slows down, generating a second shock wave," Chandra mission personnel said in a statement. This "reverse shock," the agency continued, "travels backwards, similar to how a traffic jam travels backwards from the scene of an accident on a highway."

While reverse shocks typically travel more slowly than the initial blast wave, scientists have realized that some of those in Cas A do the opposite. Their speeds remain fairly high, between about 5 million and 9 million mph (8 million and 14 million km/h). The phenomenon could be the result of the initial blast wave running into a patch of material and slowing down.

A view of Cassiopeia A that includes Chandra X-ray Observatory data. (Image credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/RIKEN/T. Sato et al.; Optical: NASA/STScI)

Cas A was the first object that Chandra observed, shortly after its launch to space on July 23, 1999. That first observation yielded new science, NASA noted, because Chandra observed a neutron star — the dense remnant left behind from a star explosion — embedded in the debris.

Other observations from Chandra over the decades have shown some of the key elements for life in the explosion and have also generated 3D models of the supernova remnant, NASA said.

Follow Elizabeth Howell on Twitter @howellspace. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook

Join our Space Forums to keep talking space on the latest missions, night sky and more! And if you have a news tip, correction or comment, let us know at:

Elizabeth Howell
Elizabeth Howell is a contributing writer for who is one of the few Canadian journalists to report regularly on space exploration. She is pursuing a Ph.D. part-time in aerospace sciences (University of North Dakota) after completing an M.Sc. (space studies) at the same institution. She also holds a bachelor of journalism degree from Carleton University. Besides writing, Elizabeth teaches communications at the university and community college level. To see her latest projects, follow Elizabeth on Twitter at @HowellSpace.