JWST snaps silky new picture of the Crab Nebula

Crab nebula in white, orange and blue
This image by NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope is the Crab Nebula, the remnants of a supernova 6,500 light-years away. The supernova remnant is comprised of several different components, including doubly ionized sulfur (red-orange), ionized iron (blue), dust (yellow-white and green), and synchrotron emission (white). Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, T. Temim (Princeton University)

Nearly 1,000 years ago, a nearby star burst into a supernova so bright that 11th century Chinese astronomers recorded it. The resulting dust cloud, called the Crab Nebula, has been a favourite study of astronomers since.

Now, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has photographed the Crab Nebula in new detail, providing more insight into the behaviour of supernovae.

“Webb’s sensitivity and spatial resolution allow us to accurately determine the composition of the ejected material, particularly the content of iron and nickel, which may reveal what type of explosion produced the Crab Nebula,” says Tea Temin, an astronomer at Princeton University in the US.

The nebula is 6,500 light-years from Earth. The supernova that formed it was observed in 1054 CE, meaning we’re now watching the nebula about a millennium after the explosion.

The picture comes from JWST’s NIRCam (Near-Infrared Camera) and MIRI (Mid-Infrared Instrument) data.

The whitish smoke seen through this picture is “synchrotron radiation”: emissions from tiny and extremely fast-moving particles like electrons. This radiation is caused by the pulsar in the middle of the nebula – a super-dense neutron star that’s spinning quickly.

The pulsar itself is a white dot in the middle: where the whisps of radiation concentrate.

The yellow-white and green colours in the middle of the picture are spots of dust grains. JWST has been able to see these grains in finer detail than its predecessor, Hubble, did in 2005 – although Hubble has since collected more data from the nebula which is yet to be analysed.

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