Astronomers spot supernova 'factory'

May 24, 2011 at 8:17 PM
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CAMBRIDGE, Mass., May 24 (UPI) -- U.S. astronomers say new data from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory suggests a nearby supernova "factory" in the Milky Way has recently started production.

Observations of the Carina Nebula located in an arm of the Milky Way 7,500 light years from Earth may help astronomers understand how some of the galaxy's heaviest and youngest stars race through their lives and release newly forged elements into their surroundings, a release from the Chandra X-Ray Center at Harvard University reported Tuesday.

Chandra's X-ray vision has detected more than 14,000 stars in this region and provided strong evidence supernovas have already occurred in this massive complex of young stars, the release said.

"The Carina Nebula is one of the best places we know to study how young massive stars live and die," said Leisa Townsley of Penn State University, who led the Carina observations. "Now, we have a compelling case that a supernova show in Carina has already begun.

"Supernovas aren't just eye-catching events, but they release newly forged elements like carbon, oxygen and iron into their surroundings so they can join in the formation of new objects, like stars and planets," Townsley said.

The Chandra survey of Carina represents about 300 hours of observing time spread over nine months.

"We may have doubled the number of known young, massive stars in Carina by looking this long with Chandra," said Matthew Povich of Penn State, an author of a paper on this new population. "Nearly all of these stars are destined to self-destruct in supernova explosions."

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