The Crab Nebula

Okay, this nebula has not had a featured place in any of my novels… yet. But I like to learn about these things because you never know when it will come in handy, and this nebula has a lot going for it.

First of all, it looks pretty spectacular. It was first observed by telescope in 1758 by Charles 1840 by a guy named William Parsons, 3rd Earl of Rosse. Back then, they didn’t have the ability to take photos through a telescope, and so he had to draw the thing. If you can imagine, it’s a pretty complex image, and the best Parsons could do was come up with something that looked vaguely like a crab, thus the name.

But that wasn’t the first time someone observed this part of space, in a manner of speaking. In the year 1054, Chinese astronomers noticed the supernova that created the nebula, calling it a “guest star.” The “star” was so bright it was visible in the daytime sky for almost a month! And you could see it at night with the naked eye for nearly two years! In 1731, John Bevis discovered the actual nebula. It was discovered again by Charles Messier, who was looking for a comet and spotted it instead. After a while, poor Messier created a catalog of things that could be confused for comets with the telescopes of the time.

The big discovery came in 1968, when astronomers from the Arecibo observatory in Puerto Rico realized there was a rapidly pulsing radio signal coming from the center of the nebula. This “pulsar” is actually a neutron star that is both rotating and emitting radiation, so that we see pulses of energy rather than just a steady light. This particular pulsar rotates thirty times a second.

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