New Hubble Picture Gives First Peek Inside Crab Nebula

Astronomers at last have a clear glimpse of the eye of a massive celestial storm.

Nearly a thousand years ago, a new star suddenly appeared in the constellation Taurus, the bull. It was so bright that, for weeks, it was visible even during the daytime.

Today, we know that this astronomical oddity was a supernova—the colossal explosion of a dying star some 6,500 light-years away. Although the mysterious star faded from Earth’s night sky several years after it appeared, its remnants formed one of the most spectacular objects in our galaxy: the Crab Nebula.

The expanding cloud of energized gas resembles a tapestry woven from brightly colored filaments. And now, for the first time, the Hubble Space Telescope has peered into the very heart of this celestial storm.

The extraordinary view—a combination of three high-resolution images—reveals the spinning core of the long-deceased star, which continues to breathe life into the gas that surrounds it.

The core is an exotic object known as a neutron star. Made entirely of subatomic particles, it has nearly the same mass as our sun but is packed into a dense sphere less than 20 miles (32 kilometers) across.

The Crab Nebula’s neutron star is spinning at approximately 30 rotations per second, whipping up the material around it.

“The rapid motion of the material nearest to the star is revealed by the subtle rainbow of colors in this time-lapse image, the rainbow effect being due to the movement of material over the time between one image and another,” according to a Hubble press release.

A powerful magnetic field that surrounds the neutron star is made visible by a ghostly blue shell of energized gas, which glows with radiation emitted by electrons swirling within the field at nearly the speed of light.

Follow Mark Strauss on Twitter.

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