Tour the colorful Crab Nebula with this stunning new 3D visualization

A new 3D movie highlights the Crab Nebula (opens in new tab), beginning with its location in the constellation Taurus (opens in new tab) and zooming in to show off its dynamic features. 

Data from the Hubble Space Telescope, Spitzer Space Telescope and the Chandra X-ray Observatory allowed visualists to piece together the different processes occurring in the beautiful structure. 

Viewers of the four-minute video get a glimpse of the pulsing, super-dense stellar corpse within the Crab Nebula. This pulsar (opens in new tab), or rapidly-spinning neutron star (opens in new tab), blasts out radiation with clockwork precision about 30 times per second, NASA officials said in a statement (opens in new tab).

The video was unveiled Jan. 5 at the 235th meeting of the American Astronomical Society (opens in new tab) in Honolulu, Hawaii.

Video: Crab Nebula visualized using NASA's 'Great Observatories' data (opens in new tab)
Related: Amazing views of the famous Crab Nebula (opens in new tab)

The Crab Nebula was once mistaken for a comet by French astronomer Charles Messier. This new multiwavelength image of the Crab Nebula combines X-ray light from the Chandra X-ray Observatory (in blue) with visible light from the Hubble Space Telescope (in yellow) and infrared light seen by the Spitzer Space Telescope (in red). (Image credit: NASA/ESA/J. DePasquale/STScI/R. Hurt/Caltech/IPAC)

This video isn't just a treat for the eyes – it also helps scientists gain a fuller understanding about the Crab Nebula's world.

"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," said Frank Summers, visualization scientist from the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, Maryland, in the statement. His team developed the movie. 

"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."

"Multiwavelength" means that Hubble (opens in new tab), Spitzer (opens in new tab) and Chandra (opens in new tab) view different types of activity with their instruments, which are each fine-tuned to different wavelengths on the electromagnetic spectrum, explained NASA. 

The pulsar at the center of the Crab Nebula contains certain structures and processes that generate particular wavelengths of light (opens in new tab). That's why 3D movies like this one are as helpful as they are fun to watch.

Related: Cosmic Bat Nebula Photographed by ESO's Very Large Telescope (opens in new tab)

The visualization is from a new generation of products being created by NASA's Universe of Learning (opens in new tab) Program, an effort to connect scientific work with lay audiences. This particular video aims to highlight the reasons behind observing space through different wavelengths. 

The Infrared Processing and Analysis Center (IPAC) at Caltech in Pasadena, California, and the Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts, also helped produce the video.

Amateur astronomers can get their own good view of the Crab Nebula in January, Hubble officials said. The object was bright enough for 18th century technology to discover it, and astronomer Charles Messier (opens in new tab) even mistook the nebula for Halley's Comet. That's why the Crab Nebula is also known as Messier 1 (M1).

More importantly, the supernova (opens in new tab) that created the nebula wowed societies across the planet when it appeared in Earth's skies centuries ago. Chinese astronomers made a record of the "guest star" appearance in 1054. The supernova was visible in the daytime sky for about a month, according to NASA (opens in new tab); it wasn't until the 20th century that astronomers realized that both M1 and the historic supernova were the same object. 

As unique as this celestial object already is from humanity's perspective, the Crab Nebula is even more peculiar than your run-of-the-mill supernova. Hubble officials shared in the video description that the object is a pulsar-wind nebula (opens in new tab).

A traditional nebula has a blast wave that scorches material around it, but the gas and dust in a pulsar wind nebula is heated by radiation to a lower temperature. 

The use of many instruments is allowing researchers to wrap their heads around this special stellar corpse.

"It is truly via the multiwavelength structure that you can more cleanly comprehend that it's a pulsar wind nebula," Summers added in the statement. "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."

Follow Doris Elin Urrutia on Twitter @salazar_elin. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook

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Doris Elin Urrutia
Contributing Writer

Doris is a science journalist and contributor. She received a B.A. in Sociology and Communications at Fordham University in New York City. Her first work was published in collaboration with London Mining Network, where her love of science writing was born. Her passion for astronomy started as a kid when she helped her sister build a model solar system in the Bronx. She got her first shot at astronomy writing as a editorial intern and continues to write about all things cosmic for the website. Doris has also written about microscopic plant life for Scientific American’s website and about whale calls for their print magazine. She has also written about ancient humans for Inverse, with stories ranging from how to recreate Pompeii’s cuisine to how to map the Polynesian expansion through genomics. She currently shares her home with two rabbits. Follow her on twitter at @salazar_elin.

  • Sunspot
    I have been looking at The Crab Nebula for decades through a variety of telescopes, and this visualization is fantastic! It's amazing what we can do now.
  • rod
    Good video showing optical, infrared, and x-ray views of M1. I last viewed on 02-Nov-2019. My log shows "Observed 2230-0045 EDT. First Quarter Moon 04-Nov-19 at 1023 UT. I observed M1 in Taurus tonight using XT10i. Good views at 48x and 86x using Orion Sirius 25-mm plossl and TeleVue 14-mm Delos. It is somewhat elongated, irregular shape but easier to see than with 90-mm refractor. No detail visible but still fun to view this supernova remnant or SNR...While I viewed, 3 Taurid meteors flashed through Taurus, about 2nd magnitude."

    This was in optical light. The pulsar is a very dense neutron star. Mean densities >= 1E+14 g cm^-3.
  • Meteoric Marmot
    Admin said:
    A new 3D movie highlights the Crab Nebula, beginning with its location in the constellation Taurus and zooming in to show off its dynamic features.

    Tour the colorful Crab Nebula with this stunning new 3D visualization : Read more
    I'm curious as to how the scientists derived the fine distance data that I assume is necessary to construct a 3D image. I think 6000 ly is too far away to use Earth's orbit to get parallax information. Is it based on Doppler shifting?
  • rod
    Meteoric Marmot said:
    I'm curious as to how the scientists derived the fine distance data that I assume is necessary to construct a 3D image. I think 6000 ly is too far away to use Earth's orbit to get parallax information. Is it based on Doppler shifting?

    Expansion rate comparisons over time and angular size changes, "The Crab Nebula currently is expanding outward at about 1,500 km/s (930 mi/s). Images taken several years apart reveal the slow expansion of the nebula, and by comparing this angular expansion with its spectroscopically determined expansion velocity, the nebula's distance can be estimated. In 1973, an analysis of many methods used to compute the distance to the nebula had reached a conclusion of about 1.9 kpc (6,300 ly), consistent with the currently cited value.", ref