By combining data captured from their Chandra X-Ray Observatory, the Hubble Space Telescope and other telescopes, the nerds at NASA have been creating compound images “to better understand the science of the universe.” By overlaying optical data with X-ray footage, we can see things–galaxies, supernovas, twin stars–in a way we’d never be able to perceive with the human eye. And as you’d expect, they’re pretty mind-blowing.
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When a star like the Sun runs out of fuel, it expands and its outer layers puff off, and then the core of the star shrinks. This phase is known as a “planetary nebula,” and astronomers expect our Sun will experience this in about 5 billion years. This Helix Nebula images contains infrared data from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope (green and red), optical light from Hubble (orange and blue), ultraviolet from NASA’s Galaxy Evolution Explorer (cyan), and Chandra’s X-rays (appearing as white) showing the white dwarf star that formed in the center of the nebula. The image is about four light years across.
What will be the next star in our Milky Way galaxy to explode as a supernova? Astronomers aren’t certain, but one candidate is in Eta Carinae, a volatile system containing two massive stars that closely orbit each other. This image has three types of light: optical data from Hubble (appearing as white), ultraviolet (cyan) from Hubble, and X-rays from Chandra (appearing as purple emission). The previous eruptions of this star have resulted in a ring of hot, X-ray emitting gas about 2.3 light years in diameter surrounding these two stars.
Supernova 1987A (SN 1987A)
On February 24, 1987, observers in the southern hemisphere saw a new object in a nearby galaxy called the Large Magellanic Cloud. This was one of the brightest supernova explosions in centuries and soon became known as Supernova 1987A (SN 87A). The Chandra data (blue) show the location of the supernova’s shock wave — similar to the sonic boom from a supersonic plane — interacting with the surrounding material about four light years from the original explosion point. Optical data from Hubble (orange and red) also shows evidence for this interaction in the ring.
Messier 82, or M82, is a galaxy that is oriented edge-on to Earth. This gives astronomers and their telescopes an interesting view of what happens as this galaxy undergoes bursts of star formation. X-rays from Chandra (appearing as blue and pink) show gas in outflows about 20,000 light years long that has been heated to temperatures above ten million degrees by repeated supernova explosions. Optical light data from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope (red and orange) shows the galaxy.
Galaxy clusters are the largest objects in the universe held together by gravity. They contain enormous amounts of superheated gas, with temperatures of tens of millions of degrees, which glows brightly in X-rays, and can be observed across millions of light years between the galaxies. This image of the Abell 2744 galaxy cluster combines X-rays from Chandra (diffuse blue emission) with optical light data from Hubble (red, green, and blue).