Activity: Identifying Elements in Supernova Remnants

Days Needed: 1 Class period
Grade level: 9 – 12


Using X-ray line data, the students will identify elements contained in supernova remnants. Students will compare and contrast Supernova Remnant Spectral Data from different X-ray observatories.

Science and Math Standards


  • Content Standard 1
    • Mathematics as Problem Solving
  • Content Standard 4
    • Mathematical Connections
  • Content Standard 8
    • Geometry from an Algebraic Perspective


  • Content Standard A
    • Abilities necessary to do scientific inquiry
    • Understandings about scientific inquiry
  • Content Standard B
    • Structure of Atoms
    • Interactions of energy and matter
  • Content Standard G
    • Nature of Scientific Knowledge


  • Math Students should have some pre-algebra, and be able to identify patterns and interpret graphs
  • Science Students should have an understanding of spectra and how they are represented, an understanding of how atoms produce spectral lines. Students should understand how elements are produced and heated in supernova remnants.


In groups of 2 or more, the students will be given several X-ray spectra from the ASCA X-ray satellite and will be asked to determine what elements are present using a chart listing elements and the energies of their emission lines. Following a class discussion of their results, they will then be given Suzaku (Astro-E) spectra of the same sources and asked to determine which elements are present. (There will be much more accuracy with Suzaku (Astro-E).) Finally, they will be given spectra from Constellation-X and asked to determine what elements are present. (There will be even better resolution with Constellation-X). Compare and contrast their findings as a class.



  • Simulated ASCA, Astro-E and Constellation-X spectra of Tycho supernova remnant (download Microsoft Word documents from below and print out)
  • Chart of X-ray lines corresponding to elements (print out student handout)
  • Simulated Supernova Remnant Spectra
Web page with all three spectra
Simulated ASCA Spectrum (doc, pdf)
Simulated Astro-E Spectrum (doc, pdf)
Simulated Constellation-X Spectrum (doc, pdf)

Hand out the Student Worksheet to the class.

Have the class do the activity and answer the questions on the worksheet. The teacher may collect and grade them.

Extension – Using Student Hera to Examine a Supernova Spectrum

Student Hera gives students the opportunity to analyze the same data sets that scientists use, using the same tools that scientists use. The Student Hera web pages walk students through examining a spectrum a supernova remnant to identify elements present in the hot gas.


Formative assessment and observation should be evident throughout the lesson. The worksheet, final questions during closure or a future quiz may serve as summative assessment.


Direct students to write for ten minutes in their journals summarizing the lab and all procedures in this lesson. Encourage students to then share their findings and what they might have written in their journals.