New X-ray photo shows famous Crab Nebula like never before

This image of the Crab Nebula combines data from NASA’s Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE) in magenta and NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory in dark purple. (Image credit: X-ray (IXPE: NASA), (Chandra: NASA/CXC/SAO) Image processing: NASA/CXC/SAO/K. Arcand & L. Frattare)

Scientists have mapped the iconic Crab Nebula's magnetic field in greater detail than ever before using NASA's latest X-ray telescope. 

Located 6,500 light-years from Earth, the Crab Nebula is the remnant of a massive stellar explosion, or supernova, that occurred in the year 1054 and left behind a dense object called the Crab Pulsar with a mass about twice that of Earth's sun. This nebula is one of the most thoroughly studied cosmic objects, but new observations suggest that it's far more complex than scientists had thought. 

Using NASA's Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE) spacecraft, Niccolò Bucciantini at the INAF Arcetri Observatory in Italy and his colleagues were able to trace the Crab Nebula's magnetic field, revealing unexpected patches and asymmetrical areas of turbulence, according to a statement from the space agency. 

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The orange lines highlight the shape of the magnetic field associated with the Crab Nebula, as determined by NASA’s IXPE spacecraft. The lines are superimposed on a composite image made with data from the Chandra X-Ray Observatory (blue and white), Hubble Space Telescope (purple), and Spitzer Space Telescope (pink). (Image credit: Magnetic field lines: NASA/Bucciantini et al; X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO; Optical: NASA/STScI; Infrared: NASA-JPL-Caltech)

"This is a clear indication that even the more complex models developed in the past, with the use of advanced numerical techniques, do not fully capture the complexity of this object," Bucciantini, lead author of a new study detailing the IXPE observations, said in the statement.

The Crab Pulsar — a spinning neutron star with jets of radiation spewing from its poles — lies at the nebula's center, surrounded by gas, shock waves, powerful magnetic fields and high-energy light and particles, collectively known as the pulsar wind nebula. NASA's Earth-orbiting IXPE satellite, which launched on Dec. 9, 2021, has helped to unravel the pulsar's chaotic surroundings, which were previously not well understood. 

The IXPE space telescope is designed to examine the polarization of cosmic X-rays. Polarization measures the direction in which light waves oscillate, which is largely influenced by an object's magnetic field. Therefore, by measuring the polarization of X-rays from the Crab Nebula, the researchers were able to map the direction of the magnetic field in different parts of the nebula, as well as how ordered the magnetic field is, according to the statement. 

Data collected by IXPE shows X-rays originate in the outer magnetic field region, called the "wind" region, and within the magnetic field around the pulsar, from which shocks accelerate particles to near the speed of light. However, further observation is needed to fully understand the origin of these X-rays. 

"The Crab is one of the most-studied high-energy astrophysical objects in the sky. So it is extremely exciting that we could learn something new about this system by looking through IXPE's 'polarized lenses,'" Michela Negro, co-author of the study and a research scientist at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, said in the statement.

Their findings were published in the journal Nature Astronomy. You can read the paper for free at the online preprint site

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Samantha Mathewson
Contributing Writer

Samantha Mathewson joined as an intern in the summer of 2016. She received a B.A. in Journalism and Environmental Science at the University of New Haven, in Connecticut. Previously, her work has been published in Nature World News. When not writing or reading about science, Samantha enjoys traveling to new places and taking photos! You can follow her on Twitter @Sam_Ashley13.