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July 7, 2016 10:00 AM (EDT)

News Release Number: STScI-2016-26

Hubble Captures the Beating Heart of the Crab Nebula

A Hubble Heritage Release

July 7, 2016: At the center of the Crab Nebula, located in the constellation Taurus, lies a celestial "beating heart" that is an example of extreme physics in space. The tiny object blasts out blistering pulses of radiation 30 times a second with unbelievable clock-like precision. Astronomers soon figured out that it was the crushed core of an exploded star, called a neutron star, which wildly spins like a blender on puree. The burned-out stellar core can do this without flying apart because it is 10 billion times stronger than steel. This incredible density means that the mass of 1.4 suns has been crushed into a solid ball of neutrons no bigger than the width of a large city. This Hubble image captures the region around the neutron star. It is unleashing copious amounts of energy that are pushing on the expanding cloud of debris from the supernova explosion — like an animal rattling its cage. This includes wave-like tsunamis of charged particles embedded in deadly magnetic fields.

On July 4, 1054, Chinese astronomers recorded the supernova that formed the Crab Nebula. The ultimate celestial firework, this "guest star" was visible during the daytime for 23 days, shining six times brighter than the planet Venus. The supernova was also recorded by Japanese, Arabic, and Native American stargazers. While searching for a comet that was predicted to return in 1758, French astronomer Charles Messier discovered a hazy nebula in the direction of the long-vanished supernova. He would later add it to his celestial catalog as "Messier 1." Because M1 didn't move across the sky like a comet, Messier simply ignored it other than just marking it as a "fake comet." Nearly a century later the British astronomer William Parsons sketched the nebula. Its resemblance to a crustacean led to M1's other name, the Crab Nebula. In 1928 Edwin Hubble first proposed associating the Crab Nebula to the Chinese "guest star" of 1054.

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Credit: NASA and ESA

Acknowledgment: J. Hester (ASU) and M. Weisskopf (NASA/MSFC)