Since ancient times, the study of astronomy has largely been limited to the flat, two-dimensional projection of what appears on the sky. However, just like a botanist puts a plant under a microscope or a paleontologist digs for fossils, astronomers want more "hands on" ways to visualize objects in space.
A new set of computer simulations represents an exciting step in that direction. Each is a three-dimensional (3D) visualization of an astronomical object based on data from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory and other X-ray observatories. While unable to fly to these distant objects and travel around them, astronomers have used data from these observatories to learn about the geometry, velocity, and other physical properties of each of these cosmic sources.
This compilation of 3D visualizations was created by Salvatore Orlando of the National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF), Osservatorio Astronomico di Palermo and his colleagues. Each of these computer simulations is available using free software that is supported by most platforms and browsers and allows users to interact with and navigate 3D models as they choose.
These objects in this new 3D collection are:
Top row (left to right):
According to current theories, material falls onto a developing star, known as a "protostar," from a surrounding disk. The interaction between this rotating disk and the nascent star leads to the narrowing of material into jets that blast away from the magnetic poles of the would-be star. These stellar jets, detected in X-rays by Chandra, generate shock waves similar to those produced by supersonic jets. A paper led by Sabina Ustamujic (INAF, Osservatorio Astronomico di Palermo) compares their 3D computer models with data from two young stars observed with Chandra. Results from earlier observations of one of these targets, DG Tau, are described here.
A massive star may end its life in a giant explosion known as a supernova, and the resulting structure is known as a supernova remnant. By modeling this supernova remnant in three dimensions, Orlando and his collaborators have shown that the massive clumps that developed soon after the star's explosion are likely responsible for the asymmetrical shape of Cas A. They calculated the kinetic energy (energy of motion) and masses of iron, silicon and sulfur involved in the explosion that could have been seen from Earth about 340 years ago.
A nova is a star that suddenly becomes tens to hundreds of times brighter, then fades to its former brightness in just a few months. In these nova systems, a white dwarf — the compact remains of a Sun-like star that has burned all of its fuel — pulls material from a nearby companion star until enough accumulates to trigger a thermonuclear explosion on the white dwarf's surface. This 3D simulation, reported in a paper by Jeremy Drake (Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian) and Orlando, explores the first 18 hours after the last outburst observed on January 28, 2010 in U Scorpii. Astronomers have seen U Scorpii erupt about once every decade, so this system is due for another outburst very soon.
Bottom row (left to right):
This 3D model, reported in a paper led by Orlando, shows the SN 1006 supernova remnant that resulted from the powerful explosion and complete destruction of a white dwarf star. The model helps explore how the clumping of material after the explosion and the acceleration of high-energy particles affects the structure of the remnant. A ball of fiery-looking stellar debris and heavy elements has been shot into the interstellar medium with speeds of tens of thousands of miles per hour. The material is heated up to temperatures of tens of millions of degrees that Chandra observes in X-ray light.
On February 23, 1987, a bright supernova was discovered in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a satellite galaxy of the Milky Way. Called SN 1987A, this supernova was only visible from Earth's southern hemisphere and represented the explosion of a massive star. The supernova's expanding remnant offers the opportunity to unveil the physical processes associated with the supernova and the final stages of stellar evolution. This computer model from a paper by Orlando and collaborators shows the remnant in 2017, incorporating data taken by Chandra, ESA's XMM-Newton and Japan's Advanced Satellite for Cosmology and Astrophysics (ASCA).
This 3D model based on a paper led by Orlando is a representation of an object called Tycho's supernova remnant. Skywatchers recorded the original stellar explosion in the year 1572 AD, and its remnant is named for the 16th century astronomer Tycho Brahe, who famously described the supernova. Like SN 1006, Tycho has resulted from the explosion of a white dwarf star. The model shows how Tycho's supernova remnant might appear at an age of 1,000 years, after evolving from its current age of 447 years. The stellar debris contains a cutout section to show the interior of the remnant. While some supernovas generate neutron stars and black holes, this one merely left an empty shell of material.
These 3D models are also part of the VR collection "Universe in Hands" by S. Orlando, INAF-Osservatorio Astronomico di Palermo
NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center manages the Chandra program. The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory's Chandra X-ray Center controls science and flight operations from Cambridge and Burlington, Massachusetts.