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X-ray bullet out of the blue

NASA / CXC / Penn State / STScI / UIUC
This image of the supernova remnant N49 combines optical observations (in yellow
and white) with an X-ray view (in blue). Labels indicate the supernova point source
toward the upper left as well as a speeding "bullet" of debris at lower right.

The stringy leftovers of a stellar explosion in the Large Magellanic Cloud make up one of the most photogenic blast scenes in our cosmic neighborhood. In the past, astronomers have used the Hubble Space Telescope and the Spitzer Space Telescope to create classic pictures of the supernova remnant known as N49, 14,000 light-years away in the constellation Dorado. Now the latest picture from NASA's Chandra X-Ray Observatory has picked up something extra: a "bullet" zooming away at about 5 million miles an hour.

The X-ray readings were gathered during more than 30 hours of Chandra telescope time by a research team headed by Penn State University's Sangwook Park. The bullet-shaped blob was spotted moving away from a source indicated in the photo above. That point source is thought to be a soft gamma-ray repeater, perhaps a neutron star with a strong magnetic field that is firing bursts of gamma rays and X-rays.

The new Chandra observations, unveiled today at the American Astronomical Society's spring meeting in Miami, suggest that N49 was a highly asymmetric explosion. Researchers surmise that the blast as we see it today was created by the collapse of a massive star 5,000 years earlier, and packs about twice as much energy as the typical supernova.

Check out the details from the Chandra team, and stay tuned for more cosmic eye candy as the AAS meeting continues this week.

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