Changes in the Crab Pulsar
Scientists are learning more about how pulsars work by studying a series of Hubble Space Telescope images of the heart of the Crab Nebula. The images, taken over a period of several months, show that the Crab is a far more dynamic object than previously understood.
At the center of the nebula lies the Crab Pulsar. The pulsar is a tiny object by astronomical standards – only about six miles across – but has a mass greater than that of the Sun and rotates at a rate of 30 times a second. As the pulsar spins its intense magnetic field whips around, acting like a sling shot, accelerating subatomic particles and sending them hurtling them into space at close to the speed of light. The tiny pulsar and its wind are the powerhouse for the entire Crab Nebula, which is 10 light-years across – a feat comparable to an object the size of a hydrogen atom illuminating a volume of space a kilometer across.
The three pictures shown here, taken from the series of Hubble images, show dramatic changes in the appearance of the central regions of the nebula. These include wisp-like structures that move outward away from the pulsar at half the speed of light, as well as a mysterious "halo" which remains stationary, but grows brighter then fainter over time. Also seen are the effects of two polar jets that move out along the rotation axis of the pulsar. The most dynamic feature seen – a small knot that "dances around" so much that astronomers have been calling it a "sprite" – is actually a shock front (where fast-moving material runs into slower-moving material)in one of these polar jets.
The telescope captured the images with the Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2 using a filter that passes light of wavelength around 550 nanometers, near the middle of the visible part of the spectrum. The Crab Nebula is located 7,000 light-years away in the constellation Taurus.