The Crab Nebula is an almost unique object. It’s made of the leftovers of a spectacular supernova and astronomers have been studying it since it exploded in 1054. Now, by combining five different telescopes, astronomers have observed it in stunning detail in our best image yet.
In a paper published in the Astrophysical Journal, astronomers discussed the complex structure seen in the nebula, which is 6,500 light-years away. Some of the structures we observe today appear to have formed before the actual supernova, for example, two bays seen west and east of the center. It also has curious features that appear to be similar to solar arcades, a bundle of coronal loops made of plasma. These are formed by the interaction between high-speed particles and intense magnetic fields in the nebula.
“Comparing these new images, made at different wavelengths, is providing us with a wealth of new detail about the Crab Nebula. Though the Crab has been studied extensively for years, we still have much to learn about it,” lead author Gloria Dubner, from the University of Buenos Aires in Argentina and the National Council of Scientific Research, said in a statement.
The image is a composition of the radio observation from the Very Large Array (VLA), infrared data from Spitzer, visible images from Hubble, the ultraviolet views from XMM-Newton, and the X-ray emission as seen by Chandra.
If this wasn’t already pretty cool. The observation by the VLA, Hubble, and Chandra were all made in November 2012, giving an almost simultaneous view of this object. Using these images, the team worked out that there are at least two sources of synchrotron radiation.
The radiation is clearly being induced or produced by the millisecond pulsar that powers the Crab Nebula. When the supernova exploded, it left in its wake an incredibly dense neutron star with an intense magnetic field and spinning so rapidly that it emits pulses of radiation every 33 milliseconds.
The pulsar weighs 4.6 times the mass of our Sun, but it is tiny for stellar standards, estimated to be between 28 and 30 kilometers (17 to 19 miles) across, which is a droplet in the ocean of the Crab Nebula, which measures over 5 light-years across. The supernova that originated it was first recorded by Chinese astronomers in the 11th century, and its mixture of a pulsar nebula and a supernova remnant has fascinated many since.