Peering at the site of ancient violence, the Hubble Space Telescope has revealed improbable beauty: this thin wisp of hydrogen, which lights up where shock waves reverberating from a long-ago supernova explosion plow through tenuous interstellar gas. The glowing debris, part of the Veil nebula, holds scientific surprise as well. Astronomers believed the Veil, one of the best-studied supernova remnants, was 2,500 light-years away and 18,000 years old. But when astrophysicist William Blair of Johns Hopkins University and his colleagues compared this new image with ground-based photos taken in 1953, they found the consensus was quite wrong. In fact, the Veil nebula is a mere 1,500 light-years away and 5,000 years old. Blair is taken aback: "This had been considered the prototypical supernova remnant, and we thought it was well understood." The results will improve models of how supernovas seed interstellar space with elements such as carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen— all essential chemicals of life.
Photo by ESA/Digitized Sky Survey (Caltech)