Observatories crack open the Crab Nebula

Composite image of Crab Nebula. Courtesy: NASA

WASHINGTON — Astronomers have produced a highly detailed composite image of the Crab Nebula, a supernova remnant.

NASA said Wednesday that researchers did it by combining data from telescopes that span nearly the entire breadth of the electromagnetic spectrum, from radio waves seen by the Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array (VLA) to the powerful X-ray glow as seen by the orbiting Chandra X-ray Observatory.

And, in between that range of wavelengths, the Hubble Space Telescope’s crisp visible-light view, and the infrared perspective of the Spitzer Space Telescope.

NASA said the Crab Nebula is “the result of a bright supernova explosion seen by Chinese and other astronomers in the year 1054. It is 6,500 light-years from Earth. At its center is a super-dense neutron star, rotating once every 33 milliseconds, shooting out rotating lighthouse-like beams of radio waves and light — a pulsar (the bright dot at image center).

“The nebula’s intricate shape is caused by a complex interplay of the pulsar, a fast-moving wind of particles coming from the pulsar, and material originally ejected by the supernova explosion and by the star itself before the explosion.”

How the colors in the image break down.

  • Red: The VLA (radio)
  • Yellow: Spitzer Space Telescope (infrared)
  • Green: Hubble Space Telescope (visible)
  • Blue: XMM-Newton (ultraviolet)
  • Purple: Chandra X-ray Observatory (X-ray)