In 1054, Chinese observers were left astonished when a bright star suddenly appeared in the sky. It was four times brighter than Venus, and visible in daylight for three weeks. What they saw was a supernova, which they called a “guest star”. Today, it forms the famous Crab Nebula.
Thanks to the Hubble Telescope, we have just been treated to a stunning new view of this famous nebula, located in the constellation of Taurus 6,500 light-years from Earth. You’ve probably seen another famous image of the Crab Nebula snapped in 1999 and 2000, but this latest composite gives us a view right into the nebula’s heart.
In particular, this image (which measures about 3 light-years across) shows us the bright neutron star – the remnant of the supernova – residing inside the nebula, called the Crab Pulsar. In the image, this neutron star is the right one of the two bright stars near the center, just below that weird oval shape.
That oval shape itself is the result of the rapid motion of nearby material caused by the neutron star, which has the same mass of 1.4 suns packed into a sphere just a few tens of kilometers across. This neutron star rotates at 30 times a second, which makes it a pulsar.
“It is unleashing copious amounts of energy that are pushing on the expanding cloud of debris from the supernova explosion — like an animal rattling its cage,” says NASA. “This includes wave-like tsunamis of charged particles embedded in deadly magnetic fields.”
This cool video above zooms in on the Crab Nebula
Elsewhere in the image, you’ll see quite a lot of red. This is ionized gas, or plasma, which is swirling around this region of space. And around the neutron star is a blue glow that, according to ESA, is “radiation given off by electrons spiraling in the powerful magnetic field around the star at nearly the speed of light.” Here, the pulsar’s intense magnetic field funnels incoming gas and fires it out from its poles in two symmetric jets of material.
From stunned observers 1,000 years ago to cosmic explorers today. Who knows where we’ll be in another 1,000 years.
Below is the full new image in all its glory. You deserve it.