New Crab Nebula image captured by James Webb Space Telescope offers unique glimpse at 'unusual' ancient structure

The telescope, with its sensitive infrared capabilities, is now advancing Crab Nebula research.

This image by NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope’s NIRCam and MIRI shows different structural details of the Crab Nebula.
This image by NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope’s NIRCam (Near-Infrared Camera) and MIRI (Mid-Infrared Instrument) shows different structural details of the Crab Nebula. The observations were taken as part of General Observer program 1714. (NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, Tea Temim/Princeton University)

A new photo of the Crab Nebula, captured by the James Webb Space Telescope, is helping scientists parse the composition and history of the ancient supernova remnant.

The Crab Nebula, located in the constellation Taurus, is the result of a supernova explosion that was seen on Earth in 1054 C.E. and was bright enough to view during the daytime.

Now, using Webb’s Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) and Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam), this new image of the Crab Nebula, which was released to the public June 17, is helping scientists better understand supernovae and the evolution of stars.

Located over 6,500 light-years away from Earth, the Crab Nebula is all that remains of a core-collapse supernova from the death of a massive star. It was the first astronomical object recognized as being connected to a supernova explosion.

According to the NASA Webb Mission Team’s June 17 press release, the Crab Nebula is highly unusual. Due to its atypical composition and very low explosion energy, scientists previously explained it as an electron-capture supernova, a rare type of explosion that arises from a star with a less-evolved core.

Now, the new Webb data widens the possible interpretations of the nebula’s composition, meaning it might not have been caused by an electron-capture explosion, but rather a weak iron core-collapse supernova.

For the first time ever, the Webb telescope, with its sensitive infrared capabilities, honed in on two areas located within the Crab’s inner filaments and mapped light emitted from the dust in high resolution.

After mapping the warm dust emission with Webb, the team created a well-rounded picture of the dust distribution: The outermost filaments contain relatively warmer dust, while cooler grains are prevalent near the center.

While other supernova remnants have dust at their centers, the Crab Nebula’s dust is found in the outer shell’s dense filaments.

“Represented as fluffy magenta material, the dust grains form a cage-like structure that is most apparent toward the lower left and upper right portions of the remnant,” Webb’s press release states.

“Filaments of dust are also threaded throughout the Crab’s interior and sometimes coincide with regions of doubly ionized sulfur (sulfur III) colored in green. Yellow-white mottled filaments, which form large loop-like structures around the supernova remnant’s center, represent areas where dust and doubly ionized sulfur overlap.”

“The Crab Nebula lives up to a tradition in astronomy: The nearest, brightest and best-studied objects tend to be bizarre,” said Nathan Smith of the Steward Observatory at the University of Arizona and a co-author of the paper.