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The Crab Nebula is one of the most studied things in the sky, but it took glimpses through various wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum to get a full picture of what’s hiding inside!

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This episode is sponsored by Fabulous, the #1 self-care app that helps you build habits and work towards your daily goals.

The first 100 people who click on the link will get 25% off a Fabulous subscription. [♪ INTRO] Besides our Sun, the Crab Nebula might be the most studied thing in the sky. Who could help but look at all of those glorious colors?

But colors aren’t the only thing hiding in this nebula. To get past all the dust and see what’s inside, scientists had to check each wavelength outside the visible spectrum. So scientists have photographed the Crab Nebula in the entire electromagnetic spectrum, from short gamma waves to long radio waves, and uncovered its complexities beyond what meets our eyes.

In 1054 CE, astronomers in China saw a star shining brighter than it ever had before; it had just gone supernova! In this month-long ordeal, it spilled its cosmic guts across the night sky, leaving behind what we see today as the Crab Nebula. They witnessed the birth of a nebula, but the nebula itself wasn't observed until hundreds of years later with old-timey telescopes.

That’s when it earned the name “Crab Nebula,” due to its resemblance to a crab…or maybe it used to look more like a crab back then. We know today from observations across different electromagnetic wavelengths that the nebula has moved and changed over time. But looking through the visible spectrum today, researchers can observe the nebula in more detail, this time with a fancier telescope: the Hubble.

They’ve used this tiny but mighty sliver of wavelengths to figure out what elements make up the nebula. See, each element absorbs sections of the visible spectrum, but not the whole thing. The pattern left behind by the sections that aren’t absorbed is unique to each element.

And in the same way, the pattern of light emitted from those elements is also unique. So scientists used these patterns to match a bunch of elements in the nebula, mainly helium, carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and sulfur. They even found that the red filaments on the outer edges of the nebula matched hydrogen’s unique emission pattern.

So researchers can tell where different elements are concentrated within the nebula. But to figure out where different temperatures are concentrated, scientists used higher energy wavelengths like ultraviolet. Through these wavelengths, scientists can see electrons moving in a way that suggests the nebula’s insides are piping hot compared to the outer parts.

Now, all of that description is important, but to get closer to what’s causing all the commotion at the center of the nebula, researchers had to switch to X-ray wavelengths using the Chandra X-ray observatory. Through this lens they figured out that the nebula’s scalding center heated up electrons so much that they reached a higher energy level. Then, when the electrons relaxed, they released photons that were also observable in X-ray wavelengths.

These particles were so energized that they formed a disk swirling like a spinning top around a vertical stream that runs right through the center and ejects particles from each end. The curved swirling paths of these electrons generate a distinctive signature of radiation, like those inside a particle accelerator. But getting to know that mysterious internal force requires different electromagnetic wavelengths.

So to peer inside and get to the heart of what’s energizing all these particles, you have to penetrate through all the dust swirling around. One way to pierce through the gaseous outside is by using longer wavelengths like infrared, microwave, and radio. See, visible light is about the size of dust particles, so you can’t capture what’s on the other side of that dust curtain using visible light, because the particles absorb all the visible wavelengths.

But wavelengths that are longer than the size of a dust particle can pass right through because they don’t interact with it. So by looking through those wavelengths, we can see what’s hiding inside. Through infrared telescopes, researchers determined that energized electrons were trapped inside the nebula’s magnetic field, which was confined to its central jet stream.

So whatever is inside the jet is strong enough to confine the magnetic field within that area. Then, by swapping to even longer wavelengths like microwaves, they could peer deeper and see that something at the center of the nebula shone brighter than anything else in our night sky. But to reveal the shiny treasure hiding inside the Crab Nebula, scientists switched to radio waves, which are 5,000 times longer than visible light wavelengths.

And what they uncovered was beautiful. A dazzling sphere sitting right at the center covered by swirling dust. Pulsing at 30 times per second, like a supercharged lighthouse.

A powerhouse known today as a pulsar. The pulsar at the center of the Crab Nebula created winds that expanded the nebula’s gas even further, releasing energy in the form of gamma rays and other types of electromagnetic radiation. And with a gamma ray telescope, researchers observed it released much more energy than they previously thought was possible.

So by looking at the nebula through the whole electromagnetic spectrum, scientists showed us that the Crab Nebula is beautiful on the outside and the inside, hiding a scientific discovery at each wavelength. When it comes to studying space in various wavelengths, the sum is greater than the whole. And habits work in a similar way, small tiny steps can help you build habits that’ll last a lifetime, and today’s sponsor Fabulous can help you with that.

Using the latest behavioral science research, Fabulous is a self-care app with over 20 million users. The app was designed to gently support your personal goals and take small consistent steps towards building a healthy habit. So if you’re trying a new morning routine, you can use features like daily coaching.

A three-minute session that helps tip the scales in making that new habit stick. You can start building your ideal daily routine by clicking the link in the description, and if you’re one of the first 100 people who click on the link you’ll get 25% off a Fabulous subscription. And checking them out also helps us, so thank you! [♪ OUTRO]