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NASA’s NuSTAR untangles mystery of how stars explode

One of the biggest mysteries in astronomy, how stars blow up in supernova explosions, finally is being unraveled with the help of NASA’s Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR).

The high-energy X-ray observatory has created the first map of radioactive material in a supernova remnant. The results, from a remnant named Cassiopeia A (Cas A), reveal how shock waves likely rip apart massive dying stars.

“Stars are spherical balls of gas, and so you might think that when they end their lives and explode, that explosion would look like a uniform ball expanding out with great power,” said Fiona Harrison, the principal investigator of NuSTAR at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena. “Our new results show how the explosion’s heart, or engine, is distorted, possibly because the inner regions literally slosh around before detonating.”

The NuSTAR map also casts doubt on other models of supernova explosions, in which the star is rapidly rotating just before it dies and launches narrow streams of gas that drive the stellar blast. Though imprints of jets have been seen before around Cas A, it was not known if they were triggering the explosion. NuSTAR did not see the titanium, essentially the radioactive ash from the explosion, in narrow regions matching the jets, so the jets were not the explosive trigger.

“This is why we built NuSTAR,” said Paul Hertz, director of NASA’s astrophysics division in Washington. “To discover things we never knew – and did not expect – about the high-energy universe.”

The researchers will continue to investigate the case of Cas A’s dramatic explosion. Centuries after its death marked our skies, this supernova remnant continues to perplex.

For more information about NuSTAR and images, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/nustar

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