Billions of years ago, before the Earth was formed, what later became our solar system was made up of dynamic, gaseous elements from a massive supernova.
In other words, supernova remnants, what’s left over when a star explodes, contain the essential elements for life. That’s why scientists have been studying supernovae, such as a well-known one called Cassiopeia A, to learn more about the universe’s building blocks.
Now, a visualization from NASA’s Chandra X-Ray Observatory illustrates how these elements disseminate. X-ray images taken by the Chandra telescope orbiting our planet show the remnants of Cassiopeia A located 11,000 light years from Earth in the Cassiopeia constellation.
In the video above, silicon is represented as red, sulfur is shown in yellow, calcium is shown in green, and iron is shown in purple. The colors accentuate what wouldn’t be visible to the naked eye—x-rays used by the Chandra telescope detect the x-ray wavelengths at which Cassiopeia A’s remnants glow most brightly.
Cassiopeia A is thought to have exploded in 1680. When that happened, massive quantities of each element were released. According to information published by NASA, oxygen was by far the most plentiful. The element was too spread across different energies for researchers to replicate it in the simulation.
Measured in mass, it would take one million Earths to represent how much oxygen was released by the explosion. That’s roughly three times the mass of our Earth’s Sun.
Different telescopes that measure electromagnetic spectrums have also been able to measure smaller quantities of carbon, nitrogen, phosphorous, and hydrogen from the supernova.
«Combined with the detection of oxygen, this means all of the elements needed to make DNA, the molecule that carries genetic information, are found in Cas A,» NASA said in a statement.
While exploding supernovae may have contributed the majority of the elements in our solar system, they’re not the only source. A blog post from Sloan Digital Sky Surveys, a group that conducts astronomical scans and research, notes that exploding white dwarfs also provide elements, as do merging and dying stars and cosmic ray fissions.
Beginning of the End
In its younger days, Cassiopeia A began a process called nucleosynthesis, during which hydrogen and helium began fusing in its core to create heavier elements. This fusion continued until a heavy iron core was formed. Smaller stars live longer than massive ones, but a star about the size of our Sun can keep fusing hydrogen for about 10 billion years. When the star then begins to consume instead of produce energy, it implodes and creates a neutron star.
When that neutron star then explodes is complicated and the subject of intense study, says NASA, but eventually objects being pulled inward are transformed and pushed outward by the explosion.