A nebula — in addition to being a Marvel character — is a patch of dust and gas in space. This particular nebula contains the crushed leftovers of the original star at its core, which is now an extremely dense “neutron star” that fully rotates every 33 milliseconds and gives the nebula energy.
Like anything else, humans can only see (through unfiltered observation) the features of space bodies that are apparent in the “visible” range of the electromagnetic light spectrum, which exists between about 390 to 700 nanometers. That’s a really small scope: if the spectrum spanned the distance between New York City and Los Angeles, the visible part would only span the size of a dime.
But it wasn’t enough to just see the “visible” parts of this nebula. A NASA press release explains that the neutron star at the heart of the Crab Nebula contains an especially “broad range of electromagnetic radiation,” so to do the job thoroughly, scientists needed to find a way to capture almost the full range.
So scientists combined several telescopes, which is all the rage these days. They used the VLA telescope to capture radio waves:
The Spitzer telescope to capture infrared waves:
The Hubble telescope to capture visible waves:
The XMM-Newton telescope to capture ultraviolet waves:
The Chandra X-ray to capture X-ray waves:
Altogether, they got this guy:
The Crab Nebula is 6,500 light-years away from Earth. If it had existed even as far as 50 light-years away at the time of the supernova explosion, the bright light — which shone as powerfully as 400 million collective suns — would have killed most life on Earth.
That’s scary to contemplate, but just looking’s alright: who knew destruction could be so beautiful?