What it is: The highest-resolution image of the Crab Nebula (M1) ever taken
Where it is: 6,500 light-years away, in the constellation Taurus
When it was taken: October 2023
Why it’s so special: This new infrared image from the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) shows one of the night sky’s most studied and most impressive nebulas in a new light. Published Oct. 30, the image reveals fresh new details within the mysterious supernova remnant known as the Crab Nebula.
The leftovers of a giant star’s explosive demise almost 1,000 years ago in 1054 , the Crab Nebula consists of a rapidly rotating neutron star (the dense remains of the star’s core) at its center, surrounded by a vast, expanding shell of gas. In JWST’s image, it’s possible to see, for the first time, wispy gas filaments in supersharp detail in red-orange. Inside the nebula, light from dust grains shines in yellow-white and green.
However, it’s what the image reveals about the inner workings of the Crab Nebula that could be the real breakthrough. Inside the nebula is a bluish-white smoky glow that, according to NASA scientists, is the radiation produced by charged particles moving around magnetic-field lines produced by the central neutron star.
JWST’s new image displaces one from the Hubble Space Telescope in 2005 as the best picture scientists have of the Crab Nebula. JWST’s 6.5-meter (21.3 feet) mirror has six times more collecting power than Hubble’s 2.4-m (7.9 feet) mirror, but JWST’s ability to see into the infrared allows for incredible images like this one. Invisible to humans and blocked by Earth’s atmosphere, infrared light is detected as heat by JWST, allowing the telescope to see through the dust and gas that typically block visible light emissions from distant objects. JWST’s Near-Infrared Camera and Mid-Infrared Instrument captured the data for this spectacular image.
How to see it in the night sky: From the Northern Hemisphere, the Crab Nebula is relatively easy to find as a hazy patch in the night sky if you have a pair of stargazing binoculars or a good small telescope. It’s about halfway between two bright stars in the autumn night sky: Betelgeuse, in Orion, and Capella, in Auriga. According to the Hubble website, the Crab Nebula gets its name from a drawing by Irish astronomer Lord Rosse (William Parsons), who in 1844 sketched the fiery remnant after observing it through a 36-inch (91 centimeters) telescope.