Smithsonian Sparks

Four amazing Chandra Instagram experiences that highlight our universe

April 18, 2024
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A 3d rendering of vela pulsar over the Washington DC skyline with text blocks surrounding it

The Vela Pulsar appears over the Washington, D.C. skyline with the help of augmented reality. Credit: Smithsonian

The Chandra X-ray Observatory was launched into space in July 1999, and ever since it has been capturing amazing images of our universe. X-rays are a form of light invisible to the human eye but are vital to investigating objects in space, from exploded stars to black holes and much more. The Chandra X-ray Center, located at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Massachusetts, controls the science and flight operations on behalf of NASA.

Here we explore four cosmic objects that really caught our eye (and ears!)—and the stories behind the images. You can even explore these cosmic images up close and welcome them into your living room via Instagram augmented reality experiences. Snap a selfie with the Helix Nebula or share a video of the Vela Pulsar in your backyard with friends and read up on the facts included in the effects so you can better understand what you are seeing. (For those of you who are new to Instagram effects, go to the Smithsonian or Chandra Instagram accounts on your mobile device and tap the three stars icon to find the effects. You can also explore 3D renderings without Instagram.)

1. Tycho Supernova Remnant

A blur of multicolored spots on a black background.
Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO; Optical: DSS; Image Processing: NASA/CXC/SAO/N. Wolk

Massive stars die in giant explosions called supernovas that can outshine an entire galaxy. After a supernova explosion, the remains of the star can become a spectacular and evolving cosmic monument to the now-deceased star. These remnants glow in X-ray light, which NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory can detect such as in this image.

2. Vela Pulsar

Purple coloring surrounded by blurry edges and orange star-like objects with a black background.
Credit: NASA/CXC/SAO (Chandra), NASA/MSFC/F. Xie et al. (IXPE); Optical: NASA/ESA/STScI; Image processing: NASA/CXC/SAO/J. Schmidt, K. Arcand

The Vela Pulsar is the aftermath of a star that collapsed whose explosion sent a remarkable storm of particles and energy into space. The Chandra X-ray Observatory and other telescopes captured this storm. At the center of Vela is a pulsar, a rapidly spinning dense star that sends beams of light out into space like a cosmic lighthouse.

3. Helix Nebula

A pink circle surrounded by different layers of color with a black background.
X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO; UV: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSC; Optical: NASA/ STScI/M. Meixner, ESA/NRAO/T.A. Rector; Infrared:NASA/JPL-Caltech/K. Su; Image Processing: NASA/CXC/SAO/N. Wolk and K. Arcand

In about 5 billion years, our sun will run out of fuel and expand, possibly engulfing the Earth. These end stages of a star’s life can be utterly beautiful as is the case with this planetary nebula called the Helix Nebula. Astronomers study these objects by looking at all kinds of light, including X-rays that the Chandra X-ray Observatory sees.

4. Cat’s Eye

Pink and white blurry lines wrap around one another with a black background.
X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO; Optical: NASA/ESA/STScI; Image Processing: NASA/CXC/SAO/J. Major, L. Frattare, K. Arcand

When our sun does run out of fuel and die, it could look like the object seen here—the Cat’s Eye Nebula, which is also a planetary nebula. The image shows a fast wind from the remaining stellar core as it rams into the ejected atmosphere and pushes it outward, creating wispy structures seen in X-rays by Chandra and optical light by the Hubble Space Telescope.