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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.

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"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.

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Elizabeth Howell, Ph.D., is a contributing writer for Space.com (opens in new tab) since 2012. As a proud Trekkie and Canadian, she tackles topics like spaceflight, diversity, science fiction, astronomy and gaming to help others explore the universe. Elizabeth's on-site reporting includes two human spaceflight launches from Kazakhstan, and embedded reporting from a simulated Mars mission in Utah. She holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc (opens in new tab). in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, and a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University. Her latest book, NASA Leadership Moments, is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday.