Chandra's X-ray vision of universe awes, puzzles
(CNN) -- A galaxy eating its neighbor, a particle
stream as long as eight Milky Ways and a nebula with what looks like a
crossbow are among the latest Chandra X-ray Observatory images dazzling astronomers and offering insight into the composition of the cosmos.
The most recent snapshots, released at a meeting of the
American Astronomical Society, give an unprecedented glimpse
into the make-up of hot regions of the universe.
"What was interesting this week was the breadth of different
things that we saw. A huge range of objects that give off
X-rays, from things relatively small like our sun to things
that are larger than the entire galaxy," said Chandra science
spokesman Wallace Tucker.
One picture revealed one of the most massive known galaxies,
swallowing a neighboring group of stars. The smaller one
casts an X-ray shadow as the larger one strips away the gas
of its hapless neighbor. It is the first such X-ray shadow observed by scientists.
The supermassive galaxy lies in the center of a
galaxy cluster that is one of the largest gravitationally
bound objects in the universe. Scientists knew it contained
an extremely hot gas region, but were surprised when Chandra
detected cool spots inside.
Seeking dark matter with energy maps
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"The exciting part is not so much the images, but the energy
dissection," said Chandra project scientist Martin Weisskopf.
The images are enabling scientists to create maps of both the temperature and the gravity of the clusters.
By pinpointing the location of matter and gravity in hot gas
clouds, Chandra could help astronomers narrow the search for
an elusive type of matter thought to constitute much of the
stuff of the universe.
"By tracing where the gas and gravity are, perhaps you can
use that to trace where the dark matter is," Weisskopf said.
In another image, a massive black hole shoots an
X-ray jet a distance of 800,000 light years, where it seems to stop in a cloud of intergalactic gas, creating a bright
X-ray jet stream blows theory away
"Both the brightness and the spectrum of the X-rays are very
different from what theory predicts," said physicist Andrew
Young in a statement. The University of Maryland professor
reported the finding with colleagues at the ASA meeting in
Rochester, New York.
"How the jet can be packed full of high energy particles,
going at near the speed of light and staying so thin is
really puzzling," Tucker said.
In one of the most bizarre pictures taken since its launch in
July, Chandra spotted a compact nebula with an array of high-energy particles that resemble a
gigantic crossbow. The nebula, located in the remnant of a
supernova, is created as a rapidly rotating neutron star, or
pulsar, spins out rings and jets of high-energy particles.
The neutron star is shooting through space. And because the
jets travel along the direction of the pulsar's motion,
astronomer George Pavlov likened the trailing jets to "rocket
In fact, shortly after the star exploded, jets with unequal
thrust along the poles of the neutron star could have
accelerated it like a rocket, Pavlov said.
'Our eyes open for the first time'
Chandra has helped confirm theories long predicted by
scientists. It took a picture of a hot cloud of gas
surrounding a dying sun-like star, offering "conclusive
proof" for the existence of hot bubbles, said astronomer Joel
Kastner of the Rochester Institute of Technology.
Yet the almost year-old orbiter, which flies 200 times higher
than Hubble, more than one-third of the way to the moon, has
forced astronomers to look at the universe in a new way.
"It's like we're beginning to have our eyes open for the
first time. We've never seen detail like this before," Tucker
said. "We're still in the discovery stage, not an
Lesson Plan: Supernova Chandra
April 26, 2000
Hubble, Chandra reveal a nova of many colors
April 13, 2000
Chandra reveals X-ray jet in nearby galaxy
October 26, 1999
New class of gamma rays discovered in Milky Way
March 23, 2000
The Chandra X-ray Observatory Center
American Astronomical Society
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