Sep 19, 2002

A Shocking Space Movie




Astronomers have captured extraordinary footage of a Manhattan-sized star rotating and spewing antimatter jets into space.




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Sept. 19, 2002: Just when it seemed the summer movie season had ended, two of NASA's Great Observatories have produced their own action movie. Multiple observations made over several months with the Chandra X-ray Observatory and the Hubble Space Telescope captured the spectacle of matter and antimatter propelled to nearly the speed of light by the Crab pulsar, a rapidly rotating neutron star the size of Manhattan.


Right: A composite (Hubble+Chandra) image of the inner regions of the Crab Nebula. [more]

"Through this movie, the Crab Nebula has come to life," says Jeff Hester of Arizona State University, lead author of a paper in the September 20th issue of The Astrophysical Journal Letters. "We can see how this awesome cosmic generator actually works."

The Crab Nebula and its neutron star are remnants of a mighty supernova explosion spotted by Chinese astronomers in 1054 A.D. "The Crab" has since become one of the most studied objects in the sky. By combining the power of Chandra and Hubble, the movie reveals features never before seen in still images. By understanding the Crab, astronomers hope to unlock the secrets of how similar objects across the universe are powered.


see the movie

In the movie, bright wispy structures can be seen moving outward at half the speed of light to form an expanding ring, visible in both X-ray and optical images. These wisps appear to originate from a shock wave that shows up as an inner X-ray ring. Dozen of knots in the ring brighten and fade. They jitter around and occasionally undergo outbursts that give rise to expanding clouds of particles.




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"These data leave little doubt that the inner X-ray ring is the location of a shock wave that turns the high-speed wind from the pulsar into extremely energetic particles," said Koji Mori of Penn State University, a coauthor of the paper.

Another dramatic feature of the movie is a turbulent jet that lies perpendicular to the inner and outer rings. Violent internal motions are obvious. "The jet looks like steam from a high-pressure boiler," said David Burrows of Penn State, another coauthor of the paper, "except when you realize you are looking at a stream of matter and anti-matter electrons moving at half the speed of light!"

The inner region of the Crab Nebula around the pulsar was observed with Hubble on 24 occasions between August 2000 and April 2001 at 11-day intervals, and with Chandra on eight occasions between November 2000 and April 2001. The Crab was observed with Chandra's Advanced CCD Imaging Spectrometer and Hubble's Wide-Field Planetary Camera.



NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., manages the Chandra program, and TRW, Inc., Redondo Beach, Calif., is the prime contractor. The Smithsonian's Chandra X- ray Center controls science and flight operations from Cambridge, Mass. The Space Telescope Science Institute is operated by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, Inc. (AURA), for NASA, under contract with the Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md. The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international cooperation between NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA).

more information


Space Movie Reveals Shocking Secrets Of The Crab Pulsar -- a Chandra X-ray Observatory press release.

Crab Nebula links: The Pulsar-powered Crab (APOD); The Crab Nebula from VLT (APOD); The Incredible Expanding Crab (APOD); A History of the Crab Nebula (HubbleSite)

From the X-ray Field Guide to Astronomy: Supernova Remnants and Neutron Stars

Great Observatory home pages: Chandra X-ray Observatory; the Hubble Space Telescope.


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