NASA telescopes capture the cosmic ‘bones’ of a dead star

The image is at once haunting and beautiful, resembling a ghostly purple and white hand reaching its fingers through the surrounding starry skies.

Released by NASA this week, it shows the remains of a supergiant star, more than 16,000 light-years from Earth, that ran out of fuel and collapsed, according to a NASA news release. What’s left is an ultradense core, called a neutron star.

The image was captured by two of NASA’s X-ray space telescopes — the Chandra X-Ray Observatory and Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer, or IXPE. IXPE observed the neutron star’s nebula, composed of a giant luminescent cloud of dust and gas, over a period of 17 days. That’s the longest the telescope has looked at any single object since it launched in December 2021.

The telescopes captured the star’s magnetic field, generated by the motion of particles within the star’s interior and charged by the rising and falling of hot gas deep in their interiors, according to research from the Center for Astrophysics, operated through the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and Harvard College Observatory. It’s this imaging that captured the purple and white hand-like figure.

“The IXPE data gives us the first map of the magnetic field in the ‘hand,” Stanford University physics professor Roger Romani, who led the study, said in the news release. “The charged particles producing the X-rays travel along the magnetic field, determining the basic shape of the nebula, like the bones do in a person’s hand.”

When massive stars die in supernova explosions, they leave behind small, rotating neutron stars that have powerful magnetic fields.

Some neutron stars, known as pulsars, shoot matter and antimatter from opposing poles as they rotate, leaving behind pulsar wind nebulas that appear as gas around the stars. In this case, the star’s pulsar is at the very base of the palm of the “hand” and is referred to as PSR B1509-58, and its ghostly purple and white hues that stretch throughout the nebula are referred to as MSH 15-52, according to Heidi Hammel, a planetary astronomer and scientist working for NASA’s James Webb Telescope Project.

“It’s really interesting and beautiful to look at because it looks like a hand, so it makes you want to ask more questions about it,” she said. “But scientifically it’s interesting in this ability to map out magnetic fields for the first time within this nebula for this object, and gives us insight into what happens when stars get to the end of their lives.”

The nebula sits along the Circinus constellation that was discovered by the Einstein X-Ray Observatory in 1982. The constellation, which resembles a drawing compass, spans about 150 light-years, according to the Astrophysical Journal.

Using telescopes to document the magnetic fields of these dead, collapsed stars can reveal the behaviors of energized matter particles and antimatter that remain of the celestial giant, NASA said.

This week’s images, which were recently published in the Astrophysical Journal, are one of several recent eerie celestial sightings that NASA has unveiled.

Earlier this year, NASA’s Juno mission caught what looks like a wide-eyed, distraught face on camera at the far north region of Jupiter. The agency in a Facebook post compared it to a “a Cubist portrait displaying multiple perspectives.”

“OK. I like it. Picasso!” the agency wrote in the post, referring to a popular TikTok sound alluding to one of Cubism’s pioneers, Pablo Picasso.

NASA first captured the pulsar PSR B1509-58 in 2001 using the Chandra space telescope, where it was discovered that the nebula’s pulsar winds resembled the shape of a hand, the agency said. Hammel said accessing the magnetic fields can help scientists learn about how stars will be born.

“It’s an important part of the story to understand how these dying stars affect their environments,” she said.