The Crab Nebula’s Amazing History

So Betelguese may not be exploding any time soon, how sad! Although we may not see such a supernova in the process, our ancestors sure did!

The Nebula in Question

The Crab Nebula (Messier 1) is not your average nebula, simply because it’s actually a supernova remnant! This beautifully colourful object is a gigantic 5.5 light years wide, and rich in many elements but most notably helium.


It contains a pulsar leftover from the supernova, which you can see best with x-rays and radio waves. It’s only a teeny 20km wide, but it’s magnetic field is so vital to explaining the structure of the remant, especially in the high frequency parts of the electromagnetic spectrum!

If you want to try and look for the Crab Nebula (implying you already have extremely powerful equipment), it is located in Taurus with an apparent magnitude of a measly 8.4. Very faint!

And The Supernova That Created It

SN 1054 was a bright supernova that lasted for about 2 years. Edwin Hubble deduced that the speed of the expanding supernova remnant means that it had been around for only about 900 years, and was able to link the Crab Nebula to SN 1054. Jan Oort confirmed this a few years later.

900 years? That’s fairly recent!

So recent, that astronomers actually witnessed AND recorded the supernova event! The explosion was recorded first by Chinese astronomers during the Song dynasty and, if you are able to read the script below, was described as a guest star because it was a temporary event. 1054 is mentioned in the 3rd, 4th, and 5th columns to the right.

Credit: David W. Pankenier.….9…77P/abstract

The part of the passage that talks about SN 1054 says “Your servant considers that, since the 5th month of last year when the baleful star appeared, a full year has passed and until now its brilliance has not faded.” I think it’s quite clear that they’re talking about the supernova here.

The image and translation above was taken from Notes on translations of the East Asian records relating to the supernova of AD 1054 written by David W. Pankenier. A large (and I mean large) portion of historical astronomical records are actually Chinese or Middle Eastern, but I don’t think people realise that or are even taught that! Decoding these scripts is so important, and I’m amazed at all of the historical work done by Pankenier and astronomers alike. The paper above is extremely detailed, but an insightful read!

That is all for this week, we’ll be getting back to stars and fusion in next week’s post. Bye for now!


  1. […] First up, Fran from My Hubble Abode has a great post about the history of the Crab Nebula.  I’ve found that the best way to learn about science is to learn about the history of science: to learn the stories about how we figured all this science stuff out.  Turns out the Crab Nebula played a much bigger role in the history of science than I thought.  Click here to learn more! […]

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