Findings: Cosmic engine caught on film

September 27, 2002

The cosmic clockwork that powers one of the night sky's most observed objects - the Crab Nebula - has been revealed by astronomers for the first time.

A movie has been constructed from images captured over eight months by the orbiting Chandra X-ray observatory and the Hubble space telescope.

This shows the dynamic forces at work within the nebula, a popular target for modern astronomers.

Jeff Hester, an astronomer at Arizona State University in the US, said the movie brought the nebula to life.

"We can see how this awesome cosmic generator actually works," he said.

Chinese astronomers were the first to see the brilliant supernova in 1054 as light from the exploding star first reached the earth.

Now, the core of that dying star can be seen as a white dot, where a neutron star the size of Manhattan is left rapidly rotating.

Bright wisps can be seen moving outward at half the speed of light to form an expanding ring.

These seem to come from a shock wave marked by an inner ring, visible in the X-ray images, where flickering knots mark the points from which clouds of particles speed outwards into space.

The astronomers believe the enormous electrical voltages generated by the rotating, highly magnetised neutron star accelerate particles - both matter and antimatter - outward along its equator to produce a wind.

When this wind smashes into the surrounding nebula, made up of matter from the exploded star left over from the supernova, it creates the shock wave.

The movie also shows a turbulent jet perpendicular to the rings, streaming away from the neutron star.

David Burrows, an astronomer at Penn State University in the US, a co-author on the project, said: "The jet looks like steam from a high-pressure boiler, except you realise you are looking at a stream of matter and anti-matter electrons moving at half the speed of light."

The findings are reported in the latest issue of The Astrophysical Journal Letters .

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