In celebration of the 29th anniversary of the launch of the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers captured this colorful look at the hourglass-shaped Southern Crab Nebula.
On April 24, 1990, Hubble was launched on the space shuttle Discovery. It has since revolutionized how astronomers and the general public see the Universe. The images it provides are spectacular from both a scientific and a purely aesthetic point of view.
Each year the telescope dedicates a small portion of its precious observing time to take a special anniversary image, focused on capturing particularly beautiful and meaningful objects. This year’s image is the Southern Crab Nebula, and it is no exception.
The Southern Crab Nebula resides in the southern constellation Centaurus, approximately 7,000 light-years from Earth. It is so named to distinguish it from the better-known Crab Nebula, a supernova remnant visible in the constellation of Taurus.
The object appears to have two nested hourglass-shaped structures that were sculpted by a whirling pair of stars in a binary system. The duo consists of an aging red giant star and a white dwarf. The red giant is shedding its outer layers. Some of this ejected material is attracted by the gravity of the companion white dwarf.
The Southern Crab Nebula was assumed to be an ordinary star until 1989, when it was observed using telescopes at ESO’s La Silla Observatory.
The resulting image showed a roughly crab-shaped extended nebula, formed by symmetrical bubbles of gas and dust. Those observations only showed the outer hourglass emanating from a bright central region that could not be resolved.
It seems fitting that Hubble has returned to this object twenty years after its first observation. The new image adds to the story of an active and evolving object and contributes to the story of Hubble’s role in our evolving understanding of the Universe.