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Uncovering the Veil Nebula

NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope photographed three magnificent sections of the Veil Nebula – the shattered remains of a supernova that exploded thousands of years ago. This series of images provides beautifully detailed views of the delicate, wispy structure resulting from this cosmic explosion. The Veil Nebula is one of the most spectacular supernova remnants in the sky. The entire shell spans about 3 degrees, corresponding to about 6 full moons.

The Veil Nebula is a prototypical middle-aged supernova remnant, and is an ideal laboratory for studying the physics of supernova remnants because of its unobscured location in our galaxy, its relative closeness, and its large size. Also known as the Cygnus Loop, the Veil Nebula is located in the constellation of Cygnus, the Swan. It is about 1,500 light-years away from Earth.

Stars in our galaxy, and in other galaxies, are constantly in the process of being born and dying. How long a star lives depends on how big and heavy it is. The bigger the star, the shorter its life. When a star significantly heavier than our Sun runs out of fuel, it collapses and blows itself apart in a catastrophic supernova explosion. A supernova releases so much light that it can outshine a whole galaxy of stars put together. The exploding star sweeps out a huge bubble in its surroundings, fringed with actual stellar debris along with material swept up by the blast wave. This glowing, brightly-colored shell of gas forms a nebula that astronomers call a “supernova remnant.”

Such a remnant can remain visible long after the initial explosion fades away. Scientists estimate that the Veil supernova explosion occurred some 5,000 to 10,000 years ago and could have been witnessed and recorded by ancient civilizations. These early viewers would have seen a star increase in brightness to roughly the brightness of the crescent Moon.

The small regions captured in these Hubble images provide stunning close-ups of the Veil. Fascinating smoke-like wisps of gas are all that remain visible of what was once a star in our Milky Way galaxy. The intertwined rope-like filaments of gas in the Veil Nebula result from the enormous amounts of energy released as the fast-moving debris from the explosion plows into its surroundings and creates shock fronts. These shocks, driven by debris moving at 600,000 kilometers per hour, heat the gas to millions of degrees. It is the subsequent cooling of this material that produces the brilliant glowing colors.

The Hubble images of the Veil Nebula are striking examples of how processes that take place hundreds of light-years away can sometimes resemble effects we see around us in our daily life. Although caused by different forces, the structures show similarities to the patterns formed by the interplay of light and shadow on the bottom of a swimming pool, rising smoke, or a ragged cirrus cloud.

Although only a few stars per century in our galaxy will end their lives in this spectacular way, these explosions are responsible for making all chemical elements heavier than iron in the universe. Elements such as copper, mercury, gold, and lead are forged in these violent events. The expanding shells of supernova remnants mix with other clouds in the Milky Way and become the raw material for new generations of stars and planets. The chemical elements that constitute Earth, and indeed those of which we ourselves are made, were formed deep inside ancient stars and distributed by supernova explosions in nebulae like the one we see here.

The images were taken with Hubble’s Wide Field Planetary Camera 2 (WFPC2) in November 1994 and August 1997. The color is produced by creating a composite of three different images. The colors indicate emission from different kinds of atoms excited by the shock: blue shows oxygen, green shows sulfur, and red shows hydrogen.

Credit: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage (STScI/AURA)-ESA/Hubble Collaboration
Acknowledgment: J. Hester (Arizona State University)