In a Different Light: The Crab Nebula

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The Crab Nebula has been observed in almost every wavelength. Each one provides a different piece of the Crab's story.

Produced by the Space Telescope Science Institute’s Office of Public Outreach in collaboration with NASA’s Universe of Learning partners: Caltech/IPAC, Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and Sonoma State University

  • Image of Crab Nebula (visible light): STScI
  • Image of Crab Nebula (infrared): Spitzer Space Telescope
  • Image of Crab Nebula (X-ray): Chandra X-ray Observatory
  • Image of Crab Nebula (gamma ray): Fermi Gamma Ray Space Telescope

Text, In A Different Light, Electromagnetic Spectrum. The Crab Nebula, M 1. Quick Facts. Distance, 6,500 light-years. Constellation, Taurus. A bar across the bottom of the screen reads, Radio, Microwave, Infrared, Visible, Ultraviolet, X-ray, Gamma Ray.
Text, On July 4, 1054, people around the world observed what appeared to be a new star in the constellation Taurus.
Constellations, Auriga, Gemini, Canis Minor, Orion, Taurus.
Text, It was actually a supernova, the explosion of a massive star that hurled its outer layers into space, creating an expanding cloud of gas that we now call the Crab Nebula. Ground-Based View.
At the heart of the nebula resides a rapidly spinning neutron star, the dense remains of the otherwise obliterated star's core.
A photo of the Nebula. The word Visible is highlighted.
Text, This visible-light picture of the Crab Nebula, taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, displays the tattered remains of the exploded star in fine detail.
The colors of the filaments relate to their composition. Oxygen, sulfur, hydrogen, and other elements.
An ethereal blue glow inside the nebula comes from electrons racing around magnetic field lines extending from the Crab's unseen neutron star, not seen here.
An infrared photo of the nebula. The word infrared is highlighted.
Text, This infrared look at the Crab from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope also depicts, in blue, the eerie glow from the speedy electrons whirling around the neutron star's magnetic field lines.
Red and orange show infrared light from hot glowing gases within the nebula's filamentary structure.
An X-ray photo of the nebula. The word X-ray is highlighted.
Text, In X-ray views from NASA's Chandra X-Ray Observatory, a white dot reveals the location of the Crab's central neutron star.
The spinning neutron star, also known as a pulsar, releases an unrelenting storm of high-energy particles into the surrounding debris field, creating a shock wave that forms a ring around the neutron star.
A closer look at the pulsar.
Text, Particle jets also shoot in opposite directions from the neutron star's poles, perpendicular to the ring.
A gamma-ray photo of the nebula. Gamma Ray is highlighted.
Text, In April 2011, NASA's Fermi spacecraft detected extremely powerful gamma-ray flares from the Crab Nebula.
A flare is circled in a red dotted line.
Text, These quote-unquote super flares were 30 times more energetic than the nebula's normal gamma-ray output and five times more powerful than previous gamma-ray outbursts from the Crab.
The flare gets brighter, then dimmer, then brighter again.
Text, Scientists think that the flares occur as the neutron star's intense magnetic field undergoes sudden restructuring, accelerating particles that emit gamma rays as they interact with the magnetic field.
A bright and colorful photo of the nebula. The words Infrared, Visible, and X-ray are highlighted.
Text, In this multiwavelength image, the Crab Nebula is observed in visible, infrared, and X-ray light.
Studying the Crab Nebula in all these wavelengths of light helps us to understand what happens after a massive star perishes in a supernova explosion, and how its destruction hurls waves of material and energy into surrounding space.