Science & Technology

Happy birthday, Hubble! To celebrate–a spectacular image of the Southern Crab Nebula

This is the Southern Crab Nebula -- Hubble's 29th anniversary image. (NASA, ESA, and STScI)
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NASA and ESA celebrate the 29th Birthday of the Hubble space telescope on 24th April 2019 with a stunning image of the Southern Crab Nebula.

The incredible image of the hourglass-shaped Southern Crab Nebula–seen above– was taken to mark the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope’s 29th anniversary in space. The nebula–formed from material shed by a binary star system– is just one of the many objects that Hubble has demystified throughout its productive life.

The image adds to our understanding of the nebula and demonstrates the telescope is still at the cutting edge as it approaches three decades in space.

Hubble’s 28th Anniversary image — the Lagoon Nebula. The whole nebula, about 4000 light-years away, is an incredible 55 light-years wide and 20 light-years tall. This image shows only a small part of this turbulent star-formation region, about four light-years across
(NASA, ESA, STScI)

On 24 April 1990, the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope was launched aboard the space shuttle Discovery. Since then, it has revolutionised how astronomers and the general public see the Universe via the images it provides. These views of the cosmos have been spectacular from both a scientific and a purely aesthetic point of view.

Each year the telescope dedicates a small portion of its precious observing time to take a special anniversary image, focused on capturing particularly beautiful and meaningful objects. This year’s image of the Southern Crab Nebula, and it is certainly no exception.

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This peculiar nebula, which exhibits nested hourglass-shaped structures, has been created by the interaction between a pair of stars at its centre. The unequal pair consists of a red giant and a white dwarf. The red giant is shedding its outer layers in the last phase of its life before it too lives out its final years as a white dwarf. Some of the red giant’s ejected material is attracted by the gravity of its companion.

When enough of this cast-off material is pulled onto the white dwarf, it too ejects the material outwards in an eruption, creating the structures we see in the nebula. Eventually, the red giant will finish throwing off its outer layers, and stop feeding its white dwarf companion. Prior to this, there may also be more eruptions, creating even more intricate structures.

Hubble’s 27th Birthday image was a double treat– the edge-on spiral galaxy NGC 4302 and the tilted galaxy NGC 4298. (STScI / NASA / ESA Photo / M. Mutchler)

This process wasn’t always known by scientists, however, when the object was first written about in 1967. At that point, the Crab Nebula was assumed to be an ordinary star. It wasn’t until 1989–when thanks to observations made by telescopes at the European Southern Observatory’s La Silla Observatory —the ‘arms’ of the roughly crab-shaped extended nebula–formed by symmetrical bubbles of gas and dust–were observed.

These observations showed the outer hourglass emanating from a bright central region– but it wasn’t until Hubble observed the Southern Crab in 1998 that the entire structure could see viewed.

This image revealed the inner nested structures, suggesting that the phenomenon that created the outer bubbles had occurred twice in the in objects recent history.

It’s only fitting that Hubble has returned to this object twenty years after its first observation with a new image that helps build the story of an active and still-evolving object. In turn, contributing to the story of Hubble’s role in our evolving understanding of the Universe.

Main image caption:
his is the Southern Crab Nebula — Hubble’s 29th-anniversary image (NASA, ESA, and STScI)

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