Celestial Tour: A Star's Demise—Origin of the Crab Nebula

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From the supernova seen in 1054 to its nebular remains almost a thousand years later, it's slowly going to fade away.

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

All images, illustrations, and videos courtesy of NASA, ESA, and STScI except:
  • Night sky imagery created with Stellarium
  • Images of supernova in the Pinwheel Galaxy (SN 2011fe) courtesy of Peter Nugent and the Palomar Transient Factory, Thunderf00t (Wikipedia), and BJ Fulton/LCOGT
  • Type Ia supernova animation courtesy of ESO/M. Kornmesser
  • Taurus constellation drawing from Firmamentum Sobiescianum sive Uranographia by Johannes Hevelius, courtesy of the United States Naval Observatory
  • Black-and-white Crab Nebula image: Bill Schoening/NOAO/AURA/NSF
  • Drawing of the Crab Nebula by William Parsons, the Third Earl of Rosse
  • Written by Vanessa Thomas
  • Designed by John Godfrey


 Text, a star's demise. A bright ball glows against a dark sky, then explodes. 

Text, China, year 1054. 

Stars dot a black background and move through the sky. 

Text, In the year 1054, astronomers in China and around the world saw a new star appear. It was brilliant. At night, it was brighter than any other star in the sky. 

The background changes from black to blue, and a bright white dot sits in the center. 

Text, In the daytime, it was so bright that it could be seen for weeks. 

A Chinese building and landscape appear at the bottom of the screen. 

Text, Gradually, the new star faded. Yet it continued to shine for more than a year before disappearing completely from view. 

The star slowly fades until it can no longer be seen. 

A dark sky appears. Bright stars shine in the darkness. 

Text, Centuries later, astronomers discovered a cloud of gas - a "nebula" - where the stellar beacon had been seen. 

A wispy cloud-like image appears in the dark sky. 

Text, They realized that the "new" star of 1054 hadn't actually been a new star at all. 

Instead, it was the explosive death of an old star, a supernova. 

A glowing ball of light grows brighter and explodes. 

Text, Roughly 6,500 light-years away, a star many times more massive than our Sun ran out of its nuclear fuel, became unstable, and exploded. 

The background changes from white to shades of pink, then to purples, then blues. The center remains bright white. 

Text, The supernova burst with the light of about 400 million suns. 

Colorful lights expand out of the bright white light. 

Text, The blast sprayed most of the star's "guts" outward, forming a gaseous nebula that has been expanding ever since. 

The sky grows darker as the light continues to grow outward. 

Text, Nearly a thousand years after the explosion was seen on Earth, the Hubble Space telescope captured this image of the stellar wreckage. 

In a sketch made by an astronomer in the mid-1800s, the supernova remnant resembled a crab. 

So today, we call it the "Crab Nebula." 

Colorful cloud and web-like patterns form a irregular shape. 

Text, At the heart of the Crab Nebula sit the remains of the deceased star's core. 

A globe of blue and white spins against a colorful background. 

Text, It is a dense, spinning ball of neutrons, a "neutron star." 

The neutron star continues to spin against a brilliant background. 

Text, The Crab Nebula's neutron star spins 30 times per second. 

Beams of light on opposite ends of the neutron star spin. 

Each time it spins, it sweeps a lighthouse-like beam of radiation past Earth, making it look as if the neutron star is pulsing rapidly. 

As the neutron star spins, the beams of light change direction, and grow brighter at times. 

Text, Because of this, we call it a "pulsar." 

The nebula appears as a purple, yellow, and red cloudlike mass. 

Text, As it spins, the pulsar affects material in the surrounding nebula. 

The nebula slowly spins. 

Text, Images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope and Chandra X-ray Observatory show changes around the pulsar happening over just a few days. 

Side-by side images display the differences, The left one is labeled "Hubble Space Telescope," and the right one is labeled "Chandra." 

Text, Material flows away from the pulsar in a set of rings around it and in a pair of jets shooting from the pulsar's poles. 

The image on the left shows a large red cloudlike mass. The one on the right is blue and smaller. Both have white centers. 

Text, Visible, infrared, and X-ray composite. 

The pulsar will gradually slow down though, and its pulses will weaken. 

The camera zooms out on the Crab Nebula. 

Text, The Crab Nebula will continue to expand and will eventually fade away. 

The nebula has a purple center and a red mass around it. 

Text, But the elements it contains, spewed out by its exploded star, provide the resources from which future generations of stars could one day form. 

Yellow and green wispy trails intertwine with the other colors.