2,000-Year-Old Cosmic Fossil Found from Star Explosion Chinese Astronomers Saw Millenia Ago

Researchers have discovered a nova at the center of the globular cluster Messier 22, the spot where ancient astronomers observed a stellar explosion.
Researchers have discovered a nova at the center of the globular cluster Messier 22, the spot where ancient astronomers observed a stellar explosion. (Image credit: ESA/Hubble and NASA, F Göttgens (IAG))

Astronomers found a 2,000-year-old cosmic fossil embedded in a field of stars — likely the leftovers of an explosion that Chinese astronomers saw and wrote about long ago.

The scientists spotted the remnants of a nova, which is a hydrogen explosion on a star's surface that causes the star to brighten. The nova's remains are still glowing – as a vast cloud of gas called a nebula. The object shines brightly in a new image of a star cluster called Messier 22.

"The position and brightness of the remains match an entry from 48 BC in an ancient collection of observations by Chinese astronomers," lead author Fabian Göttgens, a Ph.D. astrophysics student at the University of Göttingen, said in a statement. "They probably saw the original nova in the same place."

Over thousands of years, the explosion dispersed into a cloud of gas visible today — a vast expanse some 8,000 times larger than the distance between the sun and the Earth. Astronomers spotted the nova, inside of the constellation Sagittarius, with the Multi Unit Spectroscopic Explorer (MUSE); the instrument is installed on the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope in Chile.

"[MUSE] does not only produce images, [but] it also simultaneously splits starlight by colour, measuring the brightness of stars as a function of colour," University of Göttingen officials added in the statement. "This makes it particularly suitable for finding nebulae that often only glow in a certain colour — usually red."

Göttgens research  is part of his Ph.D. work with the University of Göttingen's Stefan Dreizler, a co-author of the paper. The work will be published in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics, according to the statement.

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for Space.com for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: https://qoto.org/@howellspace