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Home » 2016 » July » 11 » Hubble Space Telescope Peers into Heart of Crab Nebula
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Hubble Space Telescope Peers into Heart of Crab Nebula

Hubble Space Telescope Peers into Heart of Crab Nebula

The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has zoomed in on the center of the Crab Nebula — a ten-light-year-wide remnant of a star’s supernova explosion — to reveal its structure in great detail.

While many other images of the famous Crab Nebula, the remnant of a star that began its life with about 10 times the mass of our Sun, have focused on the filaments in the outer part of the nebula, this new image from Hubble shows the very heart of the object including the central neutron star - it is the rightmost of the two bright stars near the center of this image. Image credit: NASA / ESA / J. Hester, ASU / M. Weisskopf, NASA / MSFC.

In the year 1054 CE, Chinese astronomers were startled by the appearance of a new star, so bright that it was the brightest object in the night sky, second only to the Moon, and was visible in broad daylight for 23 days. The supernova was also recorded by Japanese, Arabic, and Native American stargazers.

Today, the Crab Nebula, also known as Messier 1 (M1), NGC 1952 and Taurus A, is visible at the site of that bright star.

This nebula, bright enough to be visible in amateur telescopes, lies approximately 6,500 light-years away in the constellation of Taurus.

The object was first identified in 1731 by English doctor, electrical researcher and astronomer John Bevis and was rediscovered in 1758 by French astronomer Charles Messier.

It derived its name from its appearance in a drawing made by Irish astronomer Lord Rosse in 1844.

In the Crab Nebula’s very center lies what remains of the innermost core of the original star, now a very exotic object known as a neutron star.

Made entirely of subatomic particles called neutrons, a neutron star has about the same mass as the Sun, but compressed into a sphere only a few tens of miles across.

Spinning approximately 30 times a second, the star shoots out detectable beams of energy that make it look like it’s pulsating.

When this ‘heartbeat’ radiation signature was first discovered in 1968, astronomers realized they had discovered a new type of astronomical object. Now they know it’s the archetype of a class of supernova remnants called pulsars.

This extraordinary view of the Crab Nebula is one that has never been seen before.

Unlike many popular images of the nebula, which highlight the spectacular filaments in the outer regions, this Hubble image shows just the inner part of the object and combines three separate high-resolution images taken around ten years apart.

The motion of the material nearest to the rapidly spinning neutron star (the rightmost of the two bright stars near the center of this image) is revealed by the subtle rainbow of colors in this image, the rainbow effect being due to the movement of material over the time between one image and another.

Hubble’s sharp eye also captures the intricate details of the ionized gas (shown in red) that forms a swirling medley of cavities and filaments.

Inside this shell of ionized gas a ghostly blue glow surrounds the spinning neutron star.

This new image is made up of observations from Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys in the optical part of the spectrum.

Two filters — broad V-band filters F550M and F606W — were used to sample various wavelengths.

The color results from assigning different hues to each monochromatic image associated with an individual filter. In this case, the assigned colors represent not only changes in different filters, but also the same filters taken on different exposure dates to highlight features that change over time.

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