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Crab Nebula
updated: Jan 11, 2013, 9:23 AM

By Chuck McPartlin

The Ring Nebula was an example of the old age of a low-mass star like our Sun. The Crab Nebula is the debris of the explosive death via core-collapse supernova of a star with a mass estimated to have been 5 to 8 solar masses. Such stars live fast and die young, expending their nuclear fuel in millions of years, instead of billions.

The supernova which produced the Crab Nebula on July 4, 1054 was observed and recorded by people in China, Japan, India, and Arabia. It was so bright that it was visible in daylight for over three weeks, and remained visible by eyeball at night for almost two years. Chinese astronomers called it a Guest Star.

The debris cloud forming the Crab Nebula is estimated to be 6300 light years away, and has expanded to about 6 light years across and 13 light years long. It is dimly visible in amateur telescopes near the tip of the eastern horn of the constellation Taurus, the Bull.

This image was made with a color video camera that's very sensitive, but with only normal TV resolution. It is an integration of 56 seconds, with a lot of signal noise. It has been heavily processed in an attempt to bring out some details in the cloud. Please don't show it to any real astrophotographers.

The Crab Nebula got its name as the result of a drawing made from observations with the largest telescope in the world in the 1840s, showing some of the brighter tendrils visible in this image, which resembled crab legs. If you're traveling to Ireland, you can visit Birr Castle and see this telescope, still used for public viewing. If you don't want to go that far, you can come to one of the second Saturday of the month public star parties at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, or one of the other Astronomy events listed on the Edhat Events page. That's this Saturday, weather permitting. Dress warmly!

Radio astronomers in the 1960s detected dozens of objects that emitted very regular beeps of radio energy, accurately repeating down to nanosecond time scales. This worried them, and they called them LGM objects, for Little Green Men, because they thought these were artificial beacons. Theoretical astrophysicists recognized them as pulsars - neutron stars with intense magnetic fields, spinning rapidly.

At the center of the Crab Nebula is the Crab Pulsar, the crushed core of the exploded star. It's estimated to be about 15 miles across, and contains about 1.5 solar masses. It's rotating at a rate of 30.2 times a second, beaming radio energy out of its magnetic poles, which don't coincide with its rotational axis - a dense and rapid cosmic lighthouse.

References for a cloudy night: http://messier.seds.org/m/m001.html http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crab_Nebula http://nightsky.jpl.nasa.gov/ http://www.birrcastle.com/

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Comments in order of when they were received | (reverse order)

 COMMENT 362481P agree helpful negative off topic

2013-01-11 10:44 AM

So that means the people who witnessed this in 1054 were actually seeing something that had happened around 5000 BCE. According to Wikipedia, this is the same time period in which humans invented beer, and the wheel.


 COMMENT 362526 agree helpful negative off topic

2013-01-11 12:18 PM

So they could drive the horse cart to the top of the nearby hill and get tipsy on home brew while watching the star show...


 COMMENT 362649P agree helpful negative off topic

2013-01-11 05:37 PM

This discussion bring up an intriguing, but only mildly related, question: How did the first guy to brew beer convince the second guy to try it?

"Hey, Thag, check this out!"

"What is it?"

"I don't know, but it's a little bubbly, and if you drink a lot of it you can't walk any more. I made it myself!"

"How did you make it?"

"Well, I threw some grains in a bowl of water, and I let them ferment for a while."


"You know, decay."


"Try some!"

"Uh, thanks, but I think I'll pass."

"By the way, did you see that amazing light in the sky last night?"

(Had to tie it back to the Crab Nebula somehow!)


 COMMENT 362743 agree helpful negative off topic

2013-01-12 08:04 AM

I don't quite understand how a description of the Crab Nebula leads to a discussion of the origin of beer making, but be that as it may, I do appreciate your informative and educational article and astrophotograph.


 MTNDRIVER agree helpful negative off topic

2013-01-12 08:36 AM

Thanks a lot, Chuck. Really interesting--I love learning about what's going on out there. Gives me a sense of perspective....


 COMMENT 362859P agree helpful negative off topic

2013-01-12 03:46 PM

How it is, RDH, is that when you see something in the sky that's "6300 light years away," you're actually seeing it as it looked 6300 Earth years ago-- or as it would have looked, if you could have seen it from Earth, which you could not have done, because the light hadn't gotten here yet. You're looking back in time. We do it every night: pretty much every star we look at is a vision back in time. Pretty cool.


 AUNTIE S. agree helpful negative off topic

2013-01-12 06:44 PM

Agreedd 2481P. I love thinking about stuff like that (especially after a couple of beers)


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