New Hubble Image Reveals the Beating Heart of the Crab Nebula

NASA and ESA, Acknowledgment: J. Hester (ASU) and M. Weisskopf (NASA/MSFC)
NASA and ESA, Acknowledgment: J. Hester (ASU) and M. Weisskopf (NASA/MSFC) / NASA and ESA, Acknowledgment: J. Hester (ASU) and M. Weisskopf (NASA/MSFC)

As celestial objects go, the Crab Nebula is still an infant. The spectacular nebula is less than 1000 years old and holds a rapidly pulsing neutron star at its center. A new close-up image from the Hubble Space Telescope reveals the nebula in all its dynamic glory. 

Active as it seems to us today, this flashing cosmic cloud was born of something even more exciting: the explosion of the Crab star in the year 1054 CE. The supernova was so massive and violent that it was plainly visible to humans on Earth. Chinese and Japanese astronomers recorded the astonishing event and watched the explosion’s remains until they faded from view. 

The bulk of the Crab star blew into stellar dust. Its core survived and became a ridiculously dense body called a neutron star. This star has the same mass as our Sun, all crammed into a sphere about 20 kilometers across. It whirls at a breathtaking rate, pulsing once every 33 seconds.

That intense action is rendered beautifully in the new Hubble image, which is actually a composite of three super-high-resolution pictures, each in a different color, taken about 10 years apart. The image shows the neutron star (that’s the rightmost of the two bright stars) and its strobe-like beams of energy, as well as the shining debris created by that first enormous explosion. The pretty blue glow is the result of electrons whizzing through the neutron star’s intense magnetic field at nearly the speed of light.

Click the image below for a closer look.

Not too shabby, Hubble. Not too shabby.

Bonus: Want to see the fiery Crab for yourself? Get yourself a pair of strong binoculars, head for some clear, dark sky, and look right between the horns of the constellation Taurus.

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