Chandra’s Hand of God

18 04 2009

There’s a new picture released by the Chandra X-Ray Observatory team.  Though it’s just a mixture of gas and dust near a spinning pulsar, the view invokes more than just feelings of scientific curiosity.

090404-chandra-nebula-02

Making pictures out of nature’s randomness is just silly, but I can’t help it!  That’s just too cool!

Okay, so on to the more amazing part:  The Science!

This image is taken in the X-Ray range and then converted to visible colors so we can see what’s going on.  Blue represents the highest energy photons and red the lowest.  The hand-like nebula is in the foreground, but it appears as though the cocoon-like nebula in the background is being energized by the same star.

The glowing gas is illuminated by pulsar PSR B1509-58 (or B1509 for short), which is a tightly compacted neutron star only 12 miles in diameter spinning at a rate of 7 times per second!  The spinning creates — or at least influences — a magnetic field upwards of 15 t-t-trillion times stronger than Earth’s.  You can see a bright bubble surrounding the star where its winds are quickly decelerated by the expanding nebula.  This is very similar to the Crab Nebula, but there are some differences.

m1animation_block_bw

Click for a 2-frame animated .gif of the expansion of the Crab over the last 30 years.

The supernova event that created the Crab was witnessed in 1054.  Today it is 10 light-years (ly) across.  Since we can measure the absolute speed of the expanding gas, and we know its angular size, we can determine quite accurately its distance from us  — 7000 ly away.

On the other hand (heh, I made a funny),  the B1509 nebula is 150 ly across and is only 1700 years old.  Not even twice as old and 15 times bigger?  The gas flies out of spinning pulsars at incredible speeds (half the speed of light for the pulsar in the Crab) and then slows down as it gets farther away.  For this nebula to have grown as large as it is in such a short amount of time would suggest to me that the star must be flinging material at nearly the speed of light!  Which might be possible, considering that it has one of the most powerful magnetic fields in the galaxy.  It is these very fast moving particles slamming into the slower moving gas cloud that creates the energetic X-Rays that emminate from the nebula.

crabpulsarwind_c

This is the pulsar in the center of the Crab Nebula. It spins at a rate of 30 times each second.

We haven’t been able to image B1509 in as fine of detail as the Crab because it’s 2.5 times farther away, but I’m pretty sure it resembles the pulsars we’ve imaged that are much closer.

So yeah, now I’m tempted to make some innane comment about how this proves God is left-handed just like me, but since when did I need photographic proof of that?  You know we’re made from left-handed molecules, right?  And for the record, just who came up with all those right-hand rules in physics?  It’s unnatural I tell you!

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3 responses

19 04 2009
147horsepower

I know its cliche but I love the Crab Nebula. I’ve been liking it since before it was cool to like it. As for that hand of god picture, its obviously a giant blue space turkey.

23 04 2009
Tristan

What makes you think god just doesn’t have a horrendously disfigured pinky and a short stubby thumb?

24 06 2009
lamar howell

To look at the chandra nebulae and deny what you eye is showing you, you’d have to be hit in the head and be “seeing stars.” Why do we have a tendency to deny the obvious. Because it it not scientific? If science always has to be so logical then that takes all the wonder out of the universe. We can’t explain, in scientific terms, why it looks like a hand reaching for a crown of light. Should we?

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