Crab’s candle starts to flicker

  • Crab Nebula is 6,500 light-years from Earth
  • It is the remains of an exploded star (a supernova)
  • Now shown to unexpectedly vary its energy output

DATA FROM SEVERAL NASA satellites has astonished astronomers by revealing unexpected changes in X-ray emission from the Crab Nebula, once thought to be the steadiest high-energy source in the sky.

“For 40 years, most astronomers regarded the Crab as a standard candle,” said Colleen Wilson-Hodge, an astrophysicist at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Centre, who presented the findings recently at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Seattle.

“Now, for the first time, we’re clearly seeing how much our candle flickers.”

The Crab Nebula is the wreckage of an exploded star whose light reached Earth in 1054. Located 6,500 light-years away, it is one of the most studied objects in the sky.

At the heart of the expanding gas cloud lies what’s left of the original star’s core, a superdense neutron star that spins 30 times a second. All of the Crab’s high-energy emissions are thought to be the result of physical processes that tap into this rapid spin.

For decades, astronomers have regarded the Crab’s X-ray emissions as so stable that they’ve used it to calibrate space-borne instruments. They also customarily describe the emissions of other high-energy sources in “millicrabs,” a unit derived from the nebula’s output.

Crab Nebula

This view of the Crab Nebula comes from the Hubble Space Telescope and spans 12 light-years. The supernova remnant, located 6,500 light-years away, is among the best-studied objects in the sky. Image courtesy NASA / ESA / ASU / J. Hester.

“The Crab Nebula is a cornerstone of high-energy astrophysics,” said team member Mike Cherry at Louisiana State University (LSU), “and this study shows us that our foundation is slightly askew.”

Satellite tag teams

The story unfolded when Cherry and Gary Case, also at LSU, first noticed the Crab’s dimming in observations by the Gamma-ray Burst Monitor (GBM) aboard NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope.

The team then analysed GBM observations of the object from August 2008 to July 2010 and found an unexpected but steady decline of several percent at four different “hard” X-ray energies.

With the Crab’s apparent constancy well established, the scientists needed to prove that the fadeout was real and was not an instrumental problem associated with the GBM.

“If only one satellite instrument had reported this, no one would have believed it,” Wilson-Hodge said.

Graph showing multi-wavelength observations of the Crab Nebula

Data from four satellites show that the Crab Nebula's energy output has varied. Powerful gamma-ray flares (pink vertical lines) have been detected as well. Graph courtesy NASA Goddard Space Flight Centre.

So the team amassed data from the fleet of sensitive X-ray observatories now in orbit—NASA’s Rossi X-Ray Timing Explorer (RXTE) and Swift satellites and the European Space Agency’s International Gamma-Ray Astrophysics Laboratory (INTEGRAL).

The results confirm a real intensity decline of about 7 percent at certain energy ranges. They also show that the Crab has brightened and faded by as much as 3.5 percent a year since 1999.

The scientists say that astronomers will need to find new ways to calibrate instruments in flight and to explore the possible effects of the inconstant Crab on past findings.

Showing some flare

Fermi’s other instrument, the Large Area Telescope, has detected unprecedented gamma-ray flares from the Crab, showing that it is also surprisingly variable at much higher energies.

The nebula’s power comes from the central neutron star, which is also a pulsar that emits fast, regular radio and X-ray pulses. This pulsed emission exhibits no changes associated with the decline, so it cannot be the source.

Instead, researchers suspect that the long-term changes probably occur in the nebula’s central light-year, but observations with future telescopes will be needed to know for sure.

Adapted from information issued by NASA MSFC.

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