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Thursday, 1 June, 2000, 12:06 GMT 13:06 UK
Hubble catches the Crab
Space telescope shows unprecedented detail
Space telescope shows unprecedented detail
By BBC News Online science editor Dr David Whitehouse

The Hubble Space Telescope (HST) has taken the most detailed pictures ever of the wreckage of an exploded star.

In the year AD 1054, Chinese astronomers noticed the appearance of a new star, so bright that it was visible in broad daylight for several weeks.

Today, the magnificent Crab Nebula, the wreckage of this exploded star, can be probed by observatories like the HST.

Located about 6,500 light-years (61,000 million, million km or 37,000 million, million miles) from Earth, the Crab Nebula is the remnant of a star that began its life with about 10 times the mass of our own Sun.

That life was seen to end by the Chinese astronomers when it exploded as a supernova. In this just released image, the Hubble Space Telescope has peered deep into the centre of the Crab nebula to reveal its structure with unprecedented detail.

Images taken with five different colour filters have been combined to construct this new false-colour picture. It shows ragged shreds of gas that are expanding away from the explosion site at over five million km per hour (three million miles per hour).

Pulsar

The core of the star survived the explosion and has become a so-called "pulsar". This superdense Earth-sized, spinning object is visible in the image as the lower of the two moderately bright stars to the upper left of centre.

The pulsar is a neutron star that spins on its axis 30 times a second. It heats its surroundings, creating the ghostly diffuse, bluish-green, glowing, gas cloud in its vicinity, including a blue arc just to its right.

The colourful network of filaments is the material from the outer layers of the star that was expelled during the explosion.

The picture is somewhat deceptive in that the filaments appear to be close to the pulsar. In reality, the yellowish green filaments toward the bottom of the image are closer to us, and approaching at some 480 km per second (300 miles per sec).

The orange and pink filaments toward the top of the picture include material behind the pulsar, rushing away from us at similar speeds.

The various colours in the picture arise from different chemical elements in the expanding gas, including hydrogen (orange), nitrogen (red), sulphur (pink), and oxygen (green).

Astronomers believe that the chemical elements in the Earth and even in our own bodies, such as carbon, oxygen, and iron, were made in other exploding stars billions of years ago.


In DepthIN DEPTH
hubble pictureEye on space
10 years of the Hubble Space Telescope
See also:

30 Sep 99 | Science/Nature
04 May 00 | Science/Nature
14 Apr 00 | Science/Nature
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