Ancient Supernova Riddle, Solved

By Dr. Tony Phillips

Australopithecus squinted at the blue African sky. He had never seen a star in broad daylight before, but he could see one today. Was it dangerous? He stared for a long time, puzzled, but nothing happened, and after a while he strode across the savanna unconcerned.

Millions of years later, we know better.

That star was a supernova, one of many that exploded in our corner of the Milky Way around the Pliocene era of pre-humans.  Australopithecus left no records; we know the explosions happened because their debris is still around. The Solar System and everything else within about 300 light-years is surrounded by supernova exhaust—a haze of million-degree gas that permeates all of local space.

Supernovas are dangerous things, and when one appears in the daytime sky, it is cause for alarm.  How did Earth survive? Modern astronomers believe the blasts were too far away (albeit not by much) to zap our planet with lethal amounts of radiation. Also, the sun’s magnetic field has done a good job holding the hot gas at bay.  In other words, we lucked out.

The debris from those old explosions has the compelling power of a train wreck; astronomers have trouble tearing their eyes away. Over the years, they’ve thoroughly surveyed the wreckage and therein found a mystery–clouds of hydrogen and helium apparently too fragile to have survived the blasts.  One of them, whimsically called “the Local Fluff,” is on the doorstep of the Solar System.

“The observed temperature and density of the Fluff do not provide enough pressure to resist the crushing action of the hot supernova gas around it,” says astronomer Merav Opher of George Mason University.   “It makes us wonder, how can such a cloud exist?

NASA’s Voyager spacecraft may have found the answer.

NASA’s two Voyager probes have been racing out of the solar system for more than 30 years. They are now beyond the orbit of Pluto and on the verge of entering interstellar space.  “The Voyagers are not actually inside the Local Fluff,” explains Opher. “But they are getting close and can sense what the cloud is like as they approach it.”

And the answer is….

“Magnetism,” says Opher. “Voyager data show that the Fluff is strongly magnetized with a field strength between 4 and 5 microgauss. This magnetic field can provide the pressure required to resist destruction.”

If fluffy clouds of hydrogen can survive a supernova blast, maybe it’s not so surprising that we did, too. “Indeed, this is helping us understand how supernovas interact with their environment—and how destructive the blasts actually are,” says Opher.

Maybe Australopithecus was on to something after all.

Opher’s original research describing Voyager’s discovery of the magnetic field in the Local Fluff may be found in Nature, 462, 1036-1038 (24 December 2009). The Space Place has a new Amazing Fact page about the Voyagers’ Golden, with sample images and sounds of Earth. After all, just in case one of the Voyager’s ever meets up with ET, we will want to introduce ourselves. Visit


Left-over cloud from the Tycho supernova, witnessed by Tycho Brahe and other astronomers over 400 years ago. This image combines infrared light captured by the Spitzer Space Telescope with x-rays captured by the Chandra X-ray Observatory, plus visible light from the Calar Also Observatory in Spain.