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Exploding Stars and Stripes

For Release: March 24, 2011

Rutgers University

Tycho's Supernova Remnant
Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/Rutgers/K.Eriksen et al.; Optical: DSS
Press Image and Caption

The discovery of a pattern of X-ray “stripes” in the remains of an exploded star may provide the first direct evidence that a cosmic event can accelerate particles to energies a hundred times higher than achieved by the most powerful particle accelerator on Earth.

This result comes from a very long observation of the Tycho supernova remnant with NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory. It could explain how some of the extremely energetic particles bombarding the Earth, called cosmic rays, are produced.

"We've seen lots of intriguing structures in supernova remnants, but we've never seen stripes before," said Kristoffer Eriksen, a postdoctoral researcher at Rutgers University who led the study. "This made us think very hard about what's happening in the blast wave of this powerful explosion." This latest study from Chandra provides support for a theory about how magnetic fields can be dramatically amplified in such blast waves.

In this theory, the magnetic fields become highly tangled and the motions of the particles very turbulent near the expanding supernova shock wave at the front edge of the supernova remnant. High-energy charged particles can bounce back and forth across the shock wave repeatedly, gaining energy with each crossing. Theoretical models of the motion of the most energetic particles -- which are mostly protons -- are predicted to leave a messy network of holes and dense walls corresponding to weak and strong regions of magnetic fields, respectively.

The X-ray stripes discovered by the Chandra researchers are thought to be regions where the turbulence is greater and the magnetic fields more tangled than surrounding areas, and may be the walls predicted by the theory. Electrons become trapped in these regions and emit X-rays as they spiral around the magnetic field lines.

However, the regular and almost periodic pattern of the X-ray stripes was not predicted by the theory.

"It was a big surprise to find such a neatly arranged set of stripes," said co-author Jack Hughes, professor of physics and astronomy at Rutgers. "We were not expecting so much order to appear in so much chaos. It could mean that the theory is incomplete, or that there's something else we don't understand."

Assuming that the spacing between the X-ray stripes corresponds to the radius of the spiraling motion of the highest energy protons in the supernova remnant, the spacing corresponds to energies about 100 times higher than reached in the Large Hadron Collider. These energies equal the highest energies of cosmic rays thought to be produced in our Galaxy.

Because cosmic rays are composed of charged particles, like protons and electrons, their direction of motion changes when they encounter magnetic fields throughout the galaxy. So, the origin of individual cosmic rays detected on Earth cannot be determined.

Supernova remnants have long been considered a good candidate for producing the most energetic cosmic rays in our Galaxy. The protons can reach energies that are hundreds of times higher than the highest energy electrons, but since they do not radiate efficiently like the electrons, direct evidence for the acceleration of cosmic ray protons in supernova remnants has been lacking.

These results also support the prediction that magnetic fields in interstellar space are greatly amplified in supernova remnants, but the difference between the observed and predicted structures means that other interpretations cannot be ruled out.

"We were excited to discover these stripes because they might allow us to directly track, for the first time, the origin of the most energetic particles produced in our galaxy," said Eriksen. "But, we're not claiming victory yet."

The Tycho supernova remnant is named for the famous Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe, who reported observing the supernova in 1572. Scientists think the explosion occurred when a white dwarf star grew in mass and exceeded its weight limit, forming a so-called Type Ia supernova. The Tycho remnant is located in the Milky Way, about 13,000 light years from Earth.

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"Supernova remnants are our best cosmic laboratories for understanding how nature accelerates the highest energy cosmic rays," said Roger Blandford of Stanford University, a noted expert in this field who was not involved with these findings. "These careful measurements provide a very strong clue as to what actually happens at these giant shock fronts."

These results were published in the February 20th, 2011 issue of The Astrophysical Journal Letters. The other co-authors are Carles Badenes from Tel-Aviv University and the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, Robert Fesen from Dartmouth College, NH, Parviz Ghavamian from Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore, MD, David Moffett, from Furman University, Greenville, SC, Paul Plucinsky from Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA), Cambridge, MA, Cara Rakowski from the Naval Research Laboratory, Washington, DC, Estela M. Reynoso from the Institute of Astronomy and Space Physics and University of Buenos Aires, Argentina and Patrick Slane from CfA.

NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., manages the Chandra program for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory controls Chandra's science and flight operations from Cambridge, Mass.

More information, including images and other multimedia, can be found at: and

Media contacts:
Carl Blesch
Rutgers University
732-932-7084, ext. 616

Megan Watzke
Chandra X-ray Center, Cambridge, Mass.

Visitor Comments (9)

Where can I find more in-depth information on the research of the Tycho stripe formation?

Posted by Paul on Monday, 08.20.12 @ 14:25pm

If explosions ripped the star, pole to pole. That explains the stripes emanating from near equator to opposed polar areas. Natl Geo July 2004 p. 19 shows solar stripes angled to left and are EM lines whose magnetics attract pos. protons out to loop's rise to corona. Protons are stripped by gravity, forming the lower level sluggish return to equator dynamo.
With that, spaces between tycho remnant stripes are from asymptotic freedom. One pole of atoms are pos energy. Opposed pole are neg energy. Protons are basic positive energy.

Posted by Ed McCarvill on Monday, 02.6.12 @ 13:40pm

Were the X-ray and optical data taken at the same time? Why is there no optical data of the explosion?

Posted by Nate on Friday, 11.4.11 @ 17:56pm

Do you have any info like these about SNR IC 443?

Posted by Graziano Chiaro on Wednesday, 08.3.11 @ 12:17pm

Dear Sir,
Will you give me exact location, Deg. of that supernova?
Can it be visible?

Posted by Jacob Shulami on Friday, 06.17.11 @ 10:51am

Seems to be some variation in its location.
This post says 7500 ly from us.

Posted by Martin on Monday, 05.9.11 @ 13:15pm

Dear Marvin L.S.,
Thanks for your question. Undoubtedly searches will be made for similar phenomena in other supernova remnants, but deeper images might be needed before other examples will be found. Very few observations of supernova remnants are as deep as the Chandra one of Tycho.
P. Edmonds, CXC

Posted by P. Edmonds on Monday, 05.2.11 @ 14:21pm

Another great first for Chandra. Are you looking into other super nova remnants for the same phenomena?

Marvin L. S.

Posted by Marvin L. S. on Saturday, 04.16.11 @ 22:55pm

I look at many NASA sites, but Chandra is my favorite. The colors are quite impressive on this remnant. These combination representations really bring out the best of all available data. Thanks

Posted by Kevin Morrison on Thursday, 03.24.11 @ 14:12pm