Time-lapse video shows a supernova's aftermath ballooning into space

It is a remarkable age that we live in — a time when astronomers have the ability to capture direct footage of space explosions that happened long before you and I existed. Such is the case for a cosmic time-lapse video scientists released on Thursday (Sept. 28). 

Constructed from about 20 years of Hubble Space Telescope data, the video zooms-in on the bubbling remnants of a supernova, or explosive star death, that happened a staggering 20,000 years or so ago. In particular, the time-lapse focuses on a small sliver of what's known as the Cygnus Loop, a nebula that represents the entirety of one stellar detonation's aftermath. 

Nebulas like this one are giant clouds of dust and gas in space, built from the guts of a star that once dramatically died in a supernova eruption. Because they contain all that old star matter, some of these space clouds are known to turn into key components of our universe called "stellar nurseries." As the name suggests, that's where old star parts can come together to form new stars.

Related: Hubble Space Telescope discovers 11-billion-year-old galaxy hidden in a quasar's glare

The nebula, called the Cygnus Loop, forms a bubble-like shape that is about 120 light-years in diameter.  (Image credit: NASA, ESA, Ravi Sankrit (STScI))

Returning to the Cygnus Loop, however, this nebula was first discovered in 1784, but proved to be so spectacular that scientists have continued to gaze into it ever since. 

And over time, they've managed to glean some intriguing information from the marvel, such as the fact that it looks kind of like a 120-light-year-wide cotton ball with a bright blobby center and glowing cobweb shell. If you could see the Cygnus Loop from Earth with the unaided eye, according to a Hubble press release on the new time-lapse, it would have a diameter equivalent to six full moons sitting right next to one another.

But, as always, there was more left to learn. And the team's new time-lapse of a Cygnus Loop slice has yielded some striking details.

What does this footage show us?

"Hubble is the only way that we can actually watch what's happening at the edge of the bubble with such clarity," Ravi Sankrit, an astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland, said in a statement.

For one, as Sankrit explains, the team was able to notice density differences in the shock wave associated with the supernova as it propagates through space. As for what a shock wave is, exactly? Well, basically, when a star explodes, not only does it release an enormous amount of material, but that material is also shot out with an immense amount of force. At risk of simplification, this results in titanic waves of energy that can propagate across breathtaking distances as they heat the area surrounding the exploded star vicinity to breathtaking temperatures — and continuously push the stellar material outward at breathtaking speeds.

And that material also tends to take the shape of threads, or filaments. With regard to the Cygnus Loop's filaments, the team says the section they looked at with the time-lapse data holds what are known as gossamer filaments, which resemble "wrinkles in a bedsheet stretched across two light-years." 

"You're seeing ripples in the sheet that is being seen edge-on, so it looks like twisted ribbons of light," William Blair of the Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Maryland, said in the statement. "Those wiggles arise as the shock wave encounters more or less dense material in the interstellar medium."

"When we pointed Hubble at the Cygnus Loop we knew that this was the leading edge of a shock front, which we wanted to study," Blair continued. "When we got the initial picture and saw this incredible, delicate ribbon of light, well, that was a bonus. We didn't know it was going to resolve that kind of structure."

But maybe most fascinatingly, it would appear that none of those filaments have slowed down at all or changed shape over the past 20 years thanks to the Loop's shock wave. To put the speed of these waves into perspective, the Loop's wave is forcing filaments to zoom into interstellar space fast enough that we'd travel from Earth to the moon in less than half an hour if we could match the velocity. 

Yet, the team says, this is on the slow end.

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Monisha Ravisetti
Astronomy Channel Editor

Monisha Ravisetti is Space.com's Astronomy Editor. She covers black holes, star explosions, gravitational waves, exoplanet discoveries and other enigmas hidden across the fabric of space and time. Previously, she was a science writer at CNET, and before that, reported for The Academic Times. Prior to becoming a writer, she was an immunology researcher at Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York. She graduated from New York University in 2018 with a B.A. in philosophy, physics and chemistry. She spends too much time playing online chess. Her favorite planet is Earth.

  • poopsmithing
    How about provide said video? Or at least a link to it, geeze Rick.
  • billslugg
    The black box below the byline is the video. You must wait until it loads, then wait 30 seconds while commercials play before it will start.

    While it is nothing but a perfectly black rectangle, should you naively tab downwards looking for the video, when it finally does start, it will start as a miniature popup in the lower right corner of the screen.

    The right third of the screen is traditionally reserved for advertisements and, yes, it is an advertisement. BUT, when the ad is over, the desired video is now playing in a zone I never look at. The motion does not draw my attention as EVERY page is full of motion. It took me about three months of poking around SDC before I finally figured this out.

    I have no problem with using commercials to pay the bills, but what's with the excessive loading delay? My connection is fiber optic, over 500 Mbps up and down, so it isn't my connection is the problem. It is in SDC servers. My guess is they wait for a commercial free page to load and then execute a selection process to see which commercial gets aired, and then wait for it to load. I would prefer the commercials would be the first thing to load, get them out of the way. All they do is upset their clientele.
  • Ryan F. Mercer
    poopsmithing said:
    How about provide said video? Or at least a link to it, geeze Rick.
    No worries. You aren't missing much. Very underwhelming.