NASA is launching a rocket on Sunday to study a 20,000-year-old supernova

The INFUSE mission will observe the famous Cygnus Loop, or Veil Nebula, to study how supernovae affect galaxy formation.

ESA/Hubble/NASA/ Z. Levay

A sounding rocket toting a special imaging and spectroscopy instrument will take a brief trip to space Sunday night to try and capture as much data as it can on a long-admired supernova remnant in the Cygnus constellation. Its target, a massive cloud of dust and gas known as the Cygnus Loop or the Veil Nebula, was created after the explosive death of a star an estimated 20,000 years ago — and it’s still expanding.

NASA plans to launch the mission at 11:35 PM ET on Sunday October 29 from the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. The Integral Field Ultraviolet Spectroscopic Experiment, or INFUSE, will observe the Cygnus Loop for only a few minutes, capturing light in the far-ultraviolet wavelengths to illuminate gasses as hot as 90,000-540,000 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s expected to fly to an altitude of about 150 miles before parachuting back to Earth.

The Cygnus Loop sits about 2,600 light-years away, and was formed by the collapse of a star thought to be 20 times the size of our sun. Since the aftermath of the event is still playing out, with the cloud currently expanding at a rate of 930,000 miles per hour, it’s a good candidate for studying how supernovae affect the formation of new star systems. “Supernovae like the one that created the Cygnus Loop have a huge impact on how galaxies form,” said Brian Fleming, principal investigator for the INFUSE mission.

“INFUSE will observe how the supernova dumps energy into the Milky Way by catching light given off just as the blast wave crashes into pockets of cold gas floating around the galaxy,” Fleming said. Once INFUSE is back on the ground and its data has been collected, the team plans to fix it up and eventually launch it again.