James Webb peers into the mysteries of the Crab Nebula

6 Nov 2023

Crab Nebula image taken by the James Webb Space Telescope. Image: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, T Temim (Princeton University)

By comparing the new infrared image with previous data, researchers aim to learn more about this supernova remnant and its origins.

The James Webb Space Telescope has turned its powerful instruments towards the remnant of a supernova to gain new insights into these cosmic phenomena.

The space observatory has shared new images of the Crab Nebula, which is a (relatively) near 6,500 light years away in the Taurus constellation.

NASA said that this nebula has drawn attention from astronomers for centuries, as a way to learn more about supernovae and the conditions surrounding these star explosions.

The new infrared image is able to peer deeper into this nebula and observe more detail than previous attempts, thanks to Webb’s powerful instruments. A cage-like structure of red-orange lines is visible in the image, which is believed to be ionised sulphur filaments.

NASA said the blue hue is ionised iron, while the more milky white material – which is prominent in the centre of the Crab Nebula – is synchrotron radiation. These are emissions produced from charged particles such as electrons and are visible in greater detail thanks to Webb’s NIRCam (Near-Infrared Camera) and MIRI (Mid-Infrared Instrument).

The image contrasts significantly with a similar image taken by the Hubble telescope roughly two decades ago, which presents a more intense, fiery view of the Crab Nebula.

Two images showing the Crab Nebula, with the left image having a green hue while the right image has a more milky appearance.

A comparison of the Crab Nebula, seen by the Hubble Space Telescope (left) and the James Webb Space Telescope (right). Hubble image: NASA, ESA, J. Hester, A Loll (Arizona State University). Webb image: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, T Temim (Princeton University).

But there is more to these images than just visual appeal, as a team of researchers led by astronomer Dr Tea Temim at Princeton University aim to use the new image to learn more about the Nebula’s origins.

“Webb’s sensitivity and spatial resolution allow us to accurately determine the composition of the ejected material, particularly the content of iron and nickel, which may reveal what type of explosion produced the Crab Nebula,” Temim said.

By comparing details from the new image with previous data, NASA said astronomers will be able to build a more comprehensive understanding of this supernova remnant.

NASA said that scientists will also have access to newer Hubble data within the next year or so, as the telescope will take another image of the Crab Nebula.

As the successor to the Hubble, the James Webb Space Telescope is the most powerful space observatory ever built and is being used to understand the mysteries of the cosmos.

In September, scientists discovered methane and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere of a distant exoplanet that has long piqued the curiosity of astronomers for having the potential to sustain life. This discovery was made using data from the James Webb Space Telescope.

10 things you need to know direct to your inbox every weekday. Sign up for the Daily Brief, Silicon Republic’s digest of essential sci-tech news.

Leigh Mc Gowran is a journalist with Silicon Republic