This weekend, a NASA rocket from the Sounding Rocket mission will study the Cygnus Loop, located approximately 2,600 light-years away from Earth, in the constellation of Cygnus. In that part of the universe, a once massive star, 20 times larger than the Sun, exploded in a brilliant supernova. The explosion would have been bright enough to be seen with the naked eye from Earth, even during the day.
Cygnus Loop, a rare phenomenon
Although the explosion occurred about 20,000 years ago, the stellar matter expelled during the explosion is still expanding at 1.5 million kilometers per hour. In 2012, it was three times the size of a full moon and it is now believed to be 120 light-years in diameter.
The Cygnus Loop phenomenon is a rather rare discovery as it reflects an ongoing supernova explosion. It shows us in real time how heavy elements, formed in the core of the dead star, are being returned to the universe. The next generation of stars and galaxies will inherit them to form.
“Supernovae like the one that created the Cygnus Loop have a tremendous impact on how galaxies form” said Brian Fleming, the lead researcher of the upcoming mission, in a statement (ref.). Fleming and his team will observe the Cygnus Loop by launching an instrument on a small sounding rocket into suborbital space.
Specifically, the instrument will collect the light flux from the Cygnus Loop in far-ultraviolet wavelengths. The glow shows that dust and gas, at temperatures ranging from 50,000 to 300,000°C, are encountering the freezing cold of space as they expand.
“INFUSE will observe how the supernova releases energy into the Milky Way. It will capture the light emitted as the shockwave collides with pockets of cold gas floating around the galaxy” Fleming said in the same statement.
Astronomers claim that this data will tell them where specific elements are located along these remnants. Ultimately, it will help them understand the life cycles of stars and galaxies