On July 4th 1054, Chinese astronomers recorded an unusual presence in the night sky; a “guest star” that burned brightly in the sky for 23 days. Now that “guest star” is known to be a supernova–an exploding star–that forms the heart of the Crab Nebula in the Taurus constellation. NASA recently released a new photograph taken with the Hubble Space Telescope of what it calls the “beating heart” of the Crab Nebula, showing one of the most incredible examples of extreme physics in space.
The neutron star at the center of the Crab Nebula is a pretty extraordinary phenomenon; it has a mass 1.4 times that of the sun, but is compacted into a space just a few miles wide. The star spins 30 times a second, like a “blender on puree” spitting out what NASA calls clock-like pulses of radiation, and tsunamis of charged particles embedded in magnetic fields. It does this without breaking apart flying apart because it’s 10 billion times stronger than steel.
As NASA explains, the image is
centered on the region around the neutron star (the rightmost of the two bright stars near the center of this image) and the expanding, tattered, filamentary debris surrounding it. Hubble’s sharp view captures the intricate details of glowing gas, shown in red, that forms a swirling medley of cavities and filaments. Inside this shell is a ghostly blue glow that is radiation given off by electrons spiraling at nearly the speed of light in the powerful magnetic field around the crushed stellar core.
It’s an eerily peaceful image of something insanely powerful and violent; the bright wisps emerging from the neutron star alone are traveling at half the speed of light, and are believed to originate from a shockwave that creates the high speed wind that in turn rotates the burned-out core of the star.
And it’s not just cool to look at; as NASA explains:
These interstellar “lighthouse beacons” are invaluable for doing observational experiments on a variety of astronomical phenomena, including measuring gravity waves.