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The next Great Observatory takes aim at the Crab pulsar

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How hot is the Crab?

NASA's next Great Observatory takes aim
at the Crab Nebula pulsar

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The crab from Palomar

Aug. 17, 1998: In early summer of 1054, long before the first Independence Day celebration in the United States, the people of Japan and China witnessed an amazing display of fireworks in the summer sky.

The Crab Nebula, as the display came to be known, was an exploding new supernova so bright it was visible in the daytime sky for nearly a month. Soon after, it faded to a level where it would not be rediscovered until newly invented telescopes spotted it in the 18th century.

Countless observations later, the Crab is still the source of some of the most intriguing questions in the field of astronomy. Dr. Martin Weisskopf, an astronomer at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, is among those asking the key questions. Weisskopf plans to use the High Resolution Camera aboard the Advanced X-Ray Astrophysics Facility (AXAF), scheduled for launch in January, 1999, to examine the surface temperature of the neutron star at the center of the Crab Nebula.

"The Crab Nebula and the star at the center of it are the Rosetta Stone of modern astrophysics," said Weisskopf, who is also the AXAF project scientist. The neutron star at the center is known as the Crab Pulsar. It is classified as a pulsar because of its flashing nature - it sends bursts of energy out 33 times a second with reliability rivaling that of our most dependable clocks and watches.

The life and times of the Crab

The Crab Pulsar was once a star 8-12 times as massive as our the Sun. About 5,000 B.C., the star used the last of its nuclear fuel, collapsed and emitted a brilliant display of gases which expanded out to create the nebula witnessed on Earth 6,000 years later when the first flash of light arrived. At the center of the nebula remained a neutron star only 12.5 miles in diameter (20 kilometers) with a magnetic field a trillion times stronger than the Earth's. (A pinhead of neutron star material weighs about as much as a World War II battleship, right.)

The magnetic field is so strong that it causes most of the light and radiation the neutron star emits to be concentrated into cones of emission, like beams from a lighthouse. In fact, the key to a pulsar is the combination of the extraordinary magnetic field and the rotation of a neutron star. If the neutron star is spinning, like the Earth rotates on its axis, and if the Earth happens to lie in the path of the beams, we see a pulse of light each time a beam sweeps across the Earth.

NASA's NEXT
Great Observatory

The world's largest and finest X-ray telescope - the Advanced X-ray Astrophysics Facility (AXAF) - is scheduled for launch aboard Space Shuttle Columbia in January 1999. With AXAF, astrophysicists at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center and around the world will observe energetic bodies ranging from quasars down to dust clouds in a quest to understand more of how and why the universe operates.

To help the public understand the purpose and value of AXAF, we are running a series of stories that describe the science that AXAF will support, and the investigations that will be carried out by scientists at NASA/Marshall.

Other stories in the series:

  • How hot is the Crab?: NASA's next Great Observatory takes aim at the Crab Nebula pulsar. (this story)
  • Why did the supernova change colors? SN 1993J was seen to be one kind of massive explosion, but then seemed to morph into a distinctly different kind. Scientists using NASA's Advanced X-ray Astrophysics Facility, launching in January, 1999, think they can discover why.
  • Looking for Pulsars in the Fast Lane Scientists are looking for bizarre, short-lived, powerhouse stars that burst with some of the brightest energy in the universe. Using AXAF, they hope to find some of the few that may exist.

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Aside from being the most observed of all pulsars, the Crab Pulsar is also believed to be the youngest of more than 700 known to astronomers.

"Since it is the youngest, it's also the hottest," explained Weisskopf, "and X-rays offer the best way to observe it at these temperatures." Neutron stars cool as they age and the temperature offers evidence of the physical activity occurring inside the star.

Right: This series of images depicts the many faces of the Crab Nebula (links to 244x1,369, 156KB JPG). The nebula is now about 7 light years across and 944 years old. Due to differences in image scales, the pictures don't map precisely onto each other. The finely detailed structure, and the dynamic physics, make the Crab one of the most studied objects in the heavens.

Taking its temperature

"Neutron stars are a unique laboratory for probing various physical phenomena," said Weisskopf. "Of interest here is the thermal evolution of the stars." The physical activity in the star's superfluid interior, under a crystalline neutron crust, is impossible to recreate in any laboratory on Earth, so scientists have been working up theories based on observations of the Crab Pulsar and other neutron stars. Different theories predict different temperature ranges for such stars.

The high resolution camera aboard AXAF will help Weisskopf and other scientists test the theories by giving them a better reading of the temperature on the surface of the Crab Pulsar.

"The more resolution the better," said Weisskopf. "Right now we're looking at the glow of activity near the center of the nebula as you might see the glow of city lights from a distance. Examining the pulsar in the center using AXAF will be like using a telescope to focus on a single street light in the middle of the city." For the Crab, the single light is a 12.5-mile-wide star in the middle of a 7-light-year-wide nebula.

Two-for-one imaging

AXAF's High Resolution Camera (HRC) will provide X-ray images that approach the rich detail of the Hubble Space Telescope's Wide field Camera. The HRC actually is two cameras in one, an imager to make pictures of X-ray sources and a spectrometer to take pictures of their "colors."

The HRC works a little bit like night-vision scopes: a weak signal is amplified by letting it strike a surface that is electrically charged almost to the point of discharging. The incoming radiation provides the extra kick and a shower of electrons is released, measured, and reconstructed into an image.

In the HRC, this is done by two microchannel plates, thin sheets of lead oxide glass with microscopic holes at an angle to intercept X-rays which release an ever growing shower of electrons. The shower emerges from the backside of the second plate and strikes an array of fine wires connected to amplifiers that measure the position and energy of the shower. From this, the image can be reconstructed.

The HRC Imager will see a section of sky 31x31 arc-minutes in size, just a little larger than the apparent diameter of the Moon, and have a resolution of 0.5 arc-second, close to Hubble's 0.1 arc-second resolution. HRC Imager pictures will be about 3,700x3,700 pixels on a side, making some of the most richly detailed images ever in X-rays. The HRC Spectroscopy Detector is arranged in a strip. When either of the two gratings behind the mirrors is swung into position, it spreads the X-rays in a spectrum across the detector much as a prism spreads visible light.

(By comparison, the Einstein HEAO-2 observatory, also developed by NASA/Marshall, had a High-Resolution Imaging camera with a 25x25 arc-minute field of view, smaller than AXAF's, and a resolution of 2 arc-seconds, about 1/4th as fine as AXAF's. Images were about 750x750 pixels in size.)

One of the important features of the HRC is its speed. Its time resolution is 0.000016 second, the equivalent of taking 62,500 pictures a second, letting Weisskopf capture images of the Crab when it is "on" or "off."

Complicating the task is the fact that the star is a pulsar, meaning that the X-ray readings must be calibrated with the pulsing.

"We need to pick the X-rays at off-pulse times out of the data," said Weisskopf.

In addition to providing information on the Crab Pulsar and its neutron star, the HRC will provide pictures of other discrete structures within the nebula. High-resolution spectroscopy of interstellar material and high-resolution spectroscopy of the nebula itself are also part of the mission plan.

Although the Crab is the most studied area of the sky outside our solar system, it still seems to generate questions as fast as it generates radiation pulses.

Crab Nebula links

Neutron stars are described in a series of pages at NASA/Marshall's X-ray Astrophysics web site.

Hubble Space Telescope images of the Crab, including a movie showing its expansion.

Einstein (HEAO-2) images of various objects.

X-ray images of the Crab as seen by the HEAO-2 Einstein Observatory and by Roentgensatellit.

A brief history of the Crab Nebula is at the Space Telescope Science Institute.

The Jodrell Bank radio observatory, which discovered pulsars in 1967, offers fact sheets onsupernovae and pulsars.

AXAF links

AXAF Project Science at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center..

AXAF Public Information Server at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

The AXAF Science Center will operate AXAF for the science community.

NASA's AXAF web site. includes descriptions of science plans and mission operations.

The HRC instrument has a detailed web site at Harvard University.

TRW is building AXAF.


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Author: Tom Kelleher, Dave Dooling
Curator: Linda Porter
NASA Official: Gregory S. Wilson