Supernova remnant

Supernova remnant

A supernova remnant (SNR) is the structure resulting from the gigantic explosion of a star in a supernova. The supernova remnant is bounded by an expanding shock wave, and consists of ejected material expanding from the explosion, and the interstellar material it sweeps up and shocks along the way.

There are two possible routes to a supernova: either a massive star may run out of fuel, ceasing to generate fusion energy in its core, and collapsing inward under the force of its own gravity to form a neutron star or a black hole; or a white dwarf star may accumulate (accrete) material from a companion star until it reaches a critical mass and undergoes a thermonuclear explosion.

In either case, the resulting supernova explosion expels much or all of the stellar material with velocities as much as 1% the speed of light, some 3,000 km/s. When this material collides with the surrounding circumstellar or interstellar gas, it forms a shock wave that can heat the gas up to temperatures as high as 10 million K, forming a plasma.

Perhaps the most famous and best-observed young SNR was formed by SN 1987A, a supernova in the Large Magellanic Cloud that was discovered in 1987. Other well-known, older, supernova remnants include Tycho (SN 1572), a remnant named after Tycho Brahe, who recorded the brightness of its original explosion (AD 1572) and Kepler (SN 1604), named after Johannes Kepler. The most recent remnant in our galaxy is G1.9+0.3, discovered in the galactic center and estimated to have gone supernova 140 years ago.

Summary of stages

An SNR passes through the following stages as it expands:

  1. Free expansion of the ejecta, until they sweep up their own weight in circumstellar or interstellar medium. This can last tens to a few hundred years depending on the density of the surrounding gas.
  2. Sweeping up of a shell of shocked circumstellar and interstellar gas. This begins the Sedov-Taylor phase, which can be well modeled by a self-similar analytic solution. Strong X-ray emission traces the strong shock waves and hot shocked gas.
  3. Cooling of the shell, to form a thin (< 1 pc), dense (1-100 million atoms per cubic metre) shell surrounding the hot (few million kelvin) interior. This is the pressure-driven snowplow phase. The shell can be clearly seen in optical emission from recombining ionized hydrogen and ionized oxygen atoms.
  4. Cooling of the interior. The dense shell continues to expand from its own momentum, in a momentum-driven snowplow. This stage is best seen in the radio emission from neutral hydrogen atoms.
  5. Merging with the surrounding interstellar medium. When the supernova remnant slows to the speed of the random velocities in the surrounding medium, after roughly a million years, it will merge into the general turbulent flow, contributing its remaining kinetic energy to the turbulence.

Types of supernova remnant

There are three types of supernova remnant:

  • Shell-like, such as Cassiopeia A
  • Composite, in which a shell contains a central pulsar wind nebula, such as G11.2-0.3 or G21.5-0.9.
  • Mixed-morphology (also called "thermal composite") remnants, in which central thermal X-ray emission is seen, enclosed by a radio shell. The thermal X-rays are primarily from swept-up interstellar material, rather than supernova ejecta. Examples of this class include the SNRs W28 and W44. (Confusingly, W44 additionally contains a pulsar and pulsar wind nebula; so it is simultaneously both a "classic" composite and a thermal composite.)

Origin of cosmic rays

Supernova remnants are the major source of Galactic cosmic rays. The connection between cosmic rays and supernova remnants was first suggested by Walter Baade and Fritz Zwicky in 1934. It was shown to be consistent with the cosmic ray losses of the Milky Way if the efficiency of acceleration is about 10 percent by Vitaly Ginzburg and Sergei Syrovatskii in 1964, and it is supported by a specific mechanism called "shock wave acceleration" based on Enrico Fermi's ideas, which is still under development.

Indeed, Enrico Fermi proposed in 1949 a model for the acceleration of cosmic rays through particle collisions with magnetic clouds in the interstellar medium. This process, known as the "Second Order Fermi Mechanism", increases particle energy during head-on collisions, resulting in a steady gain in energy. A later model to produce Fermi Acceleration was generated by a powerful shock front moving through space. Particles that repeatedly cross the front of the shock can gain significant increases in energy. This became known as the "First Order Fermi Mechanism".

Supernova remnants can provide the energetic shock fronts required to generate ultra-high energy cosmic rays. Observation of the SN 1006 remnant in the X-ray has shown synchrotron emission consistent with it being a source of cosmic rays. However, for energies higher than about 1015 eV a different mechanism is required as supernova remnants cannot provide sufficient energy.

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