Supernova in a Lab: Mimicking the Cosmic Blast’s Splendid Aftermath

Nestled in the constellation Taurus, a spectacle of swirling cosmic gases measuring half a dozen lightyears across glows in shades of emerald and auburn. The Crab Nebula was born of a supernova, the explosion of a giant star, and now, a lab machine the size of a double door replicates how the immense blasts paint the astronomical swirls into existence. “It’s six feet tall and looks like a big slice of pizza that’s about four feet wide at the top,” said Ben Musci of the supernova machine he built for a study at the Georgia Institute of Technology. The machine is also about as thin as a door and stands vertically with the point of the “slice of pizza” at the bottom. A concise detonation in that tip thrusts a blast wave toward the top, and in the middle of the machine, the wave passes through two layers of gas, making them mix turbulently into swirls like those left by supernovas. Laser light illuminates the swirls, and through a window, a high-speed camera with a close-up lens captures the beauty along with data on a centimeter scale that can be extrapolated to astronomical scales using well-established physics math. Getting the machine to produce results useful for studying nature took two and a half years of engineering adjustments.Matching up swirls “We suddenly go from a perfectly still chamber to a little supernova. There was a lot of engineering done to contain the blast and at the same time make it realistic where it hits the gas interface in the visualization window,” said Devesh Ranjan, the study’s principal investigator and a professor in Georgia Tech’s George W. Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering. “The hard part was troubleshooting the artifacts that were not part of supernova physics. I spent a year getting rid of things like an extra shock wave bouncing around in the chamber or air leaking in from the room,” said Musci, the study’s first author and a graduate research assistant in Ranjan’s lab. “I also had to make sure that gravity, background radiation, and temperature did not throw off the physics.” The researchers publish their results in The Astrophysical Journal on June 17, 2020. The research was funded by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Fusion Energy Science program. Musci plans to collaborate with Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory to compare the machine’s gas patterns with actual data on supernova remnants. Supernova’s special blast Not all nebulas are remnants of supernovas, but many are. They and other supernova remnants start out with a massive star. Stars are balls of gases, which are arranged in layers, and when a star explodes in a supernova, those layers enable the formation of the beautiful swirls.

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