Hubble Stares into the Crab Nebula's Beating Heart

The space telescope has combined three images almost 10 years apart of the famous nebula, highlighting violent dynamics swirling deep in its core.

Nearly 1,000 years ago a massive star reached the end of its natural life and astronomers in China and Japan recorded seeing the bright supernova become the second brightest object in the night sky (second only to the moon). This cataclysmic event -- which actually occurred 6,500 light-years distant in the constellation of Taurus then faded over a few years until it faded into the dark -- marked an end to a truly magnificent astronomical spectacle.

However, this was only the beginning of the Crab Nebula's story.

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Though supernovas are, by their nature, a violent and definitive ending to an aging massive star, the elements generated by the cataclysm go on to enrich the universe, birthing new stars and providing the building blocks for life. Our planet and all life on it is a complex mix of these primordial elements -- hence Carl Sagan's famous Cosmos quote: "We are made of star stuff." However, the debris that remains, laced with all this star stuff, leaves a lasting memory of the star that came before as a beautiful work of art.

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Of course, in 1054 CE astronomers would have thought it impossible that humanity would ever get another glimpse of the region where that famous brightening in Taurus occurred, but modern astronomers have powerful observatories on Earth and in space that can zoom through the light-years to reexamine the powerful stellar eruptions that were spied so long ago in our history. The Hubble Space Telescope is one of these revolutionary observatories and it is helping us understand more about the dynamics of a supernova remnant.

Yes, I said dynamics.

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If you've ever gazed upon a nebula through a telescope, to the human eye it looks like a static cloud frozen in time. Although we know a supernova remnant is a vast cloud of expanding material racing away at supersonic speeds, the scale of the eruption is simply too huge for our puny lifespans to see much in the way of motion in those speeding jets of dust and gas.

But now we have Hubble -- a telescope that has been orbiting Earth for over quarter of a century, which has been checking in on the Crab Nebula regularly and, as this beautiful image shows, the heart of the nebula is very much in motion.

Three Hubble observations of the Crab Nebula have been combined as one, showing the throbbing heart of the gas surrounding the central neutron star that was formed during the explosive compression of the original supernova. This compressed husk of degenerate stellar matter has the mass equivalent of our sun, but all crammed into a sphere measuring a few dozen miles across. This exotic object is the epitome of extreme; it's spinning at 30 times a second and is so dense that one teaspoon of its material would weigh over a billion tons.

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Its extreme nature impacts the central volume of the Crab, the motion of which has been captured by Hubble as ripples, almost like the aftermath of a pebble being dropped in a pond. The different colors of these concentric rings represent the different colored Hubble snapshots taken nearly 10 years apart and each record a violent environment inside the nebula.

In addition to speeding clouds of gas and dust, the Crab Nebula is a hive of intense magnetic activity, energizing charged particles, causing them to spin and generate light. Hubble can see this also, detecting the bright blue light being generated by ion-magnetic field interactions near the neutron star.

This latest Crab Nebula view is as we've never seen it before, proving that supernova remnants are incredibly intricate and dynamic celestial objects that need to be studied for decades before we truly reveal their beating hearts.

GALLERY: Hubble's Beautiful Butterfly Nebulae

In a discovery announced on Sept. 4, 2013, a population of planetary nebulae near the galactic core appear to be, weirdly, preferentially aligned to the Milky Way's galactic plain. The nebulae, known as "bipolar" (or "butterfly") planetary nebulae are completely non-interacting and of various ages, suggesting some external force is shaping their orientation. It's thought that a powerful magnetic field may be the culprit.

The researchers used observations from the Hubble Space Telescope and ESO's New Technology Telescope, so here are a small selection of some stunning examples of bipolar planetary nebulae as seen through the eye of Hubble. Shown here is the stunning NGC 6302 -- an intricate example of a bipolar planetary nebula's butterfly wings.

Hubble 5: A classically-shaped bipolar (or 'butterfly') planetary nebula.

NGC 6881: A binary star possibly shapes this wonderfully symmetrical nebula.

NGC 5189: A dramatic view of the ribbons of bright material being ejected from a planetary nebula.

PN Hb 12: An 'hourglass'-shaped bipolar planetary nebula.

Hen 3-1475: A planetary nebula in the making.

M2-9: What appears to be twin jet engines is in fact a stunning example of a bipolar planetary nebula.