Watch: Fly through the Crab Nebula’s delicate heart

This new 3D rendering of a famous supernova remnant is gorgeous — and it will teach astronomers more about the explosive deaths of stars.
By | Published: February 25, 2021
3D reconstruction of the Crab Nebula from different viewpoints
These 3D images of the Crab Nebula (M1) show the object as seen from Earth at left, and a simulated rotated view of the nebula from another angle at right.
Thomas Martin, Danny Milisavljevic and Laurent Drissen
The Crab Nebula (M1) is one of the most famous objects in our sky. This cloud of dust and gas marks the gravesite of a massive star that went supernova some 5,300 years ago.

Although it appears as a smudgy, fuzzy patch of light through smaller scopes, larger instruments reveal a complicated, twisting structure. And a stunning new 3D reconstruction of the remnant’s central regions is now taking our view of this millennia-old object to the next level.

In stunning 3D

Researchers generated the new view using the Spectromètre Imageur à Transformée de Fourier pour l’Etude en Long et en Large de raies d’Emission (SITELLE) instrument on the 3.6-meter Canada France Hawaii Telescope (CFHT) on Mauna Kea. Their reconstruction shows the Crab in exquisite detail from every angle, allowing viewers to zoom in and around the structure. The most striking feature is the remnant’s delicate lattice of gas filaments, which crisscross each other like a honeycomb.

The work was published January 18 in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Astronomers still aren’t sure exactly what type of star produced the nebula we see today. And based on their new reconstruction, the team now suggests the Crab’s morphology doesn’t quite match the type of supernova (and thus, progenitor star) that most think created it. The researchers hope that by bringing astronomers up close to — and even inside of — the Crab, they’ll be better able to determine the type of star that exploded to give birth to this amazing object.
1844 drawing of the Crab Nebula
This drawing, made in 1844 by William Parsons, the Third Earl of Rosse, shows the Crab Nebula with a long tail. Rosse thought it looked like a horseshoe crab — hence, the Crab Nebula.
William Parsons, Third Earl of Rosse

Evolving view

Although light from the explosive supernova that created the Crab — which sits about 6,300 light-years away — reached Earth in A.D. 1054, the nebula itself wasn’t discovered until 1731. (Twenty-seven years later, it became the first entry in Charles Messier’s list of “not-comets.”)

Its name comes from an 1844 drawing by William Parsons, the Third Earl of Rosse, who studied the nebula through a 36-inch refractor. His depiction included a long “tail” that gave the object the appearance of a horseshoe crab.

Since then, however, our view of the Crab has steadily improved. Case in point: the CFHT that collected the data for this 3D simulation has nearly 16x the light-gathering power of Parsons’ telescope. And even before this, views of the Crab with larger, better instruments — starting with Parsons’ return to the Crab with a 72-inch telescope in 1848 — yielded increasingly accurate images that often left amateurs wondering: “Just where is the crab in the Crab?”