Watch: Fly through the Crab Nebula’s delicate heart - Beyond The World
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Watch: Fly through the Crab Nebula’s delicate heart

The Crab Nebula (M1) is one of the most well-known astronomical objects. The gravesite of a massive star that went supernova 5,300 years ago is marked by this cloud of dust and gas.

Larger instruments reveal a complicated, twisting structure, which appears as a smudgy, fuzzy patch of light through smaller scopes. And now, thanks to a stunning new 3D reconstruction of the remnant’s central regions, we can get a better look at this millennia-old object.

In stunning 3D

The new view was created using the 3.6-meter Canada France Hawaii Telescope (CFHT) on Mauna Kea’s Spectromètre Imageur à Transformée de Fourier pour l’Etude en Long et en Large de raies d’Emission (SITELLE) instrument. Their reconstruction depicts the Crab in stunning detail from all angles, allowing viewers to zoom in and out. The delicate lattice of gas filaments that crisscross each other like a honeycomb is the remnant’s most striking feature.

The work was published January 18 in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

The type of star that created the nebula we see today is still a mystery to astronomers. And, based on their new findings, the team now believes the Crab’s morphology doesn’t quite match the type of supernova (and thus progenitor star) that most scientists believe created it. The researchers hope that by bringing astronomers up close to — and even inside — the Crab, they’ll be able to figure out what kind of star exploded to create this incredible object.

Evolving view
1844 drawing of the Crab Nebula
This drawing, made in 1844 by William Parsons, the Third Earl of Rosse, shows the Crab Nebula with a long tail. Rosse thought it looked like a horseshoe crab — hence, the Crab Nebula. (William Parsons, Third Earl of Rosse)

The Crab nebula was discovered in 1731, despite the fact that light from the explosive supernova that created it — which is about 6,300 light-years away — reached Earth in A.D. 1054. (It was the first entry in Charles Messier’s list of “not-comets” twenty-seven years later.)

The nebula was studied through a 36-inch refractor by William Parsons, the Third Earl of Rosse, who drew it in 1844. His depiction included a long “tail” that gave the object a horseshoe crab appearance.

However, our opinion of the crab has steadily improved since then. The CFHT that gathered the data for this 3D simulation, for example, has nearly 16 times the light-gathering power of Parsons’ telescope. Even before that, observations of the Crab with larger, better instruments — beginning with Parsons’ return to the Crab in 1848 with a 72-inch telescope — yielded increasingly accurate images that often left amateurs wondering, “Just where is the crab in the Crab?”

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