NASA has released both an image and a video visualization of one of astronomy’s most beautiful objects, the famous Crab Nebula, by combining data from three of its key instruments.
The Crab Nebula is a popular target for astronomical observations and has been imaged by telescopes like Hubble in the past. What makes this new visualization different is the combination of three different data sets to create a 3D image of the nebula which shows off its elaborate structure. With information gathered from the Hubble Space Telescope, the Spitzer Space Telescope, and the Chandra X-Ray Observatory, the visualization shows a new level of detail of this astronomical wonder.
“Seeing two-dimensional images of an object, especially of a complex structure like the Crab Nebula, doesn’t give you a good idea of its three-dimensional nature,” Space Telescope Science Institute’s (STScI) visualization scientist Frank Summers, who led the team that developed the visualization, said in a statement. “With this scientific interpretation, we want to help people understand the Crab Nebula’s nested and interconnected geometry. The interplay of the multiwavelength observations illuminate all of these structures. Without combining X-ray, infrared, and visible light, you don’t get the full picture.”
To see how the different wavelengths used in the imaging process pick out different details, you can look at the three separate images below. By using the various instruments to look at different wavelengths, details of the outer, middle, and inner of the nebula can all be seen simultaneously.
As well as being beautiful to look at and engaging for the public, this visualization is also beneficial to astronomy researchers. It shows clearly that the nebula is not, as most nebulae are, a classical remnant of a supernova. Instead, it is of a type called a pulsar wind nebula, which has a core of cooler gas which is heated by radiation.
“It is truly via the multiwavelength structure that you can more cleanly comprehend that it’s a pulsar wind nebula,” Summers said. “This is an important learning objective. You can understand the energy from the pulsar at the core moving out to the synchrotron cloud, and then further out to the filaments of the cage.”