INFUSE, a new sounding rocket mission, has been launched to study the Cygnus Loop supernova remnant. Using a unique tool that combines imaging and spectroscopy, he seeks to uncover the secrets of stellar explosions and their role in the formation of new celestial bodies.
A new rocket mission is heading into space to understand how explosive stellar death lays the foundation for new star systems. The Integrated Ultraviolet Spectroscopic Experiment, or INFUSE, a sounding rocket mission, will launch from White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico on October 29, 2023, at 9:35 p.m. CST.
Chicken ring: a celestial phenomenon
For a few months every year, the constellation Cygnus (which means “swan” in Latin) soars across the night sky in the Northern Hemisphere. Just above its wing lies a favorite target of astronomers and professional scientists alike: the Cygnus Loop, also known as the Veil Nebula.
The Cygnus Ring is the remains of a star that was 20 times the size of our Sun. About 20,000 years ago, that star collapsed under its own gravity and exploded into a supernova. Even from 2,600 light-years away, astronomers estimate that the flash of light would be bright enough to be seen from Earth during the day.
Supernovas: Architects of the Galaxy
Supernovas are part of a great life cycle. They spray heavy metals formed in the star’s core into the surrounding clouds of dust and gas. It is the source of all the chemical elements in our world heavier than iron, including those that make up our bodies. From the turbulent clouds and stellar objects left in their wake, gas and dust from the supernova gradually coalesce to form planets, stars, and new star systems.
“Supernovae like the one that created the Cygnus Loop have a huge impact on how galaxies form,” said Brian Fleming, a research professor at the University of Colorado Boulder and principal investigator of the INFUSE mission.
Understanding supernova dynamics
The Cygnus ring provides a rare look at a supernova explosion still in progress. The massive cloud actually spans more than 120 light-years, and is still expanding today at roughly 930,000 miles per hour (about 1.5 million kilometers per hour).
What our telescopes pick up from the Cygnus ring is not the supernova explosion itself. Instead, we see dust and gas superheated by the shock front, which glows as it cools again.
“INFUSE will monitor how the supernova dumps energy into the body
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Innovative devices: INFUSE
To see that impact front at its hot edge, Fleming and his team developed a telescope that measures far-ultraviolet light, a type of light that is too energetic for our eyes to see. This light detects gas at temperatures between 90,000 and 540,000 degrees
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INFUSE is an integrated field spectrometer and the first instrument of its kind to fly into space. The instrument combines the strengths of two methods for studying light: imaging and spectroscopy. Your typical telescopes have cameras that excel at creating images, showing the source of the light, precisely revealing its spatial arrangement. But telescopes don’t separate light into different wavelengths or “colours.” Rather, all the different wavelengths interfere with each other in the resulting image.
Spectroscopy, on the other hand, takes a single beam of light and separates it into its component wavelengths, or spectrum, much as a prism separates light into a rainbow. This procedure reveals all kinds of information about the material the light source is made of, its temperature, and how it moves. But spectroscopy can only look at one slice of light at a time. It’s like looking at the night sky through a narrow keyhole.
INFUSE takes the image and then slices it, arranging the slices into one giant keyhole. The spectrometer can then propagate each slice in its spectrum. This data can be reassembled into a 3D image that scientists call a “data cube” — like a stack of images where each layer detects a specific wavelength of light.
Implications and future prospects
Using data from INFUSE, Fleming and his team will not only identify specific elements and their temperatures, but will also see where those different elements are located along the shock front.
“It’s a very exciting project to be a part of,” said graduate student Emily Witt, also at CU Boulder, who led most of the INFUSE assembly and testing and will lead the data analysis. “With these first-of-its-kind measurements, we will better understand how these elements from the supernova mix with their surrounding environment. It is a big step toward understanding how material from supernovas becomes part of planets like Earth and even people like us.”
To reach space, the INFUSE payload will fly aboard a sounding rocket. These smart, crewless rockets launch into space for a few minutes to collect data before falling back to Earth. The INFUSE payload will fly aboard a two-stage Black Brant 9 rocket, aiming to reach an altitude of about 150 miles (240 kilometers), where it will make its observations, before parachuting back to Earth for recovery. The team hopes to upgrade the tool and release it again. In fact, parts of the INFUSE rocket were reused from the DEUCE mission, which launched from Australia in 2022.
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