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Phil Evans' Swift Universe: Contemplating the inconstancy of the Crab

January 12, 2011 Leave a comment

New results from NASA space observatories have revealed something surprising about the Crab Nebula: This famous supernova remnant — long considered a veritable “old faithful” of X-ray sources for the constancy of it energy output — appears to be dimming over time. We asked Phil Evans, gogblog’s on-call X-ray scientist and a member of the NASA Swift Observatory science team, to tell us why the inconstancy of the Crab is so important to astronomers.

image of crab nebulaThe Crab Nebula has a prestigious history. It formed when a star exploded in a supernova, and was first observed and recorded by Chinese observers in 1054 AD. The glow of the supernova was so bright, people could see it during the day for more than 3 weeks!

The material which was blown off the star has been expanding since then in a complex structure with leg-like filaments that earned it its name. It’s also a very bright source of X-rays, and — particularly usefully — its brightness and spectrum don’t change; so astronomers can (and do) use it to calibrate their X-ray instruments. In fact, “a Crab” is an internationally recognized unit of measurement.

The problem is, these new results suggest that the Crab is not constant after all, according to a press release issued today by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. The measurements taken over the last few years by the Fermi, Swift, RXTE and INTEGRAL satellites show that the Crab actually varies by a few percent every year. This is not too disastrous right now: It’s pretty hard to calibrate high-energy instruments to an accuracy of 1 percent or so, and the definition of “a Crab” as a unit of measurement has a fixed definition. But as technology advances, we will probably find that the Crab is no longer the ideal calibration source.

This type of finding, by the way, is not unusual. It is often the case that an object described as the “protoype” of its class turns out to be atypical! Indeed the star Vega, long used as a standard in optical astronomy, was recently found not to be standard. The exciting thing about all of this is it shows us how much we still have to learn. The Crab is among the brightest X-ray sources in the sky, and yet it is able to jump out and surprise us.

In a related point under the same press release, recently published work from the NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope and the Italian Space Agency’s AGILE satellite have found large gamma-ray flares from the Crab Nebula. Investigation is ongoing, but this may indicate a really strong electric field. As study coauthor Stefan Funk said, “The strength of the gamma-ray flares shows us they were emitted by the highest-energy particles we can associate with any discrete astrophysical object,” which in themselves present plenty of challenges.

The Crab nebula: exciting and enigmatic? Yes! Constant and well understood? No! A fantastic natural laboratory? You bet.

— Phil Evans

Follow Phil on Twitter to get updates on his life and work in X-ray astronomy.
@Swift_Phil

chart of declining crab nebula x-ray output

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OH AND DID I MENTION? All opinions and opinionlike objects in this blog are mine alone and NOT those of NASA or Goddard Space Flight Center. And while we’re at it, links to websites posted on this blog do not imply endorsement of those websites by NASA.


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