In the year 1054, a Chinese astronomer had his eyes to the skies when he noticed something peculiar appear. Bright light from a distant supernova suddenly lit up the Taurus constellation, marking the first time the Crab Nebula, also known as Messier 1, had ever been observed. Almost a millennium later, it has become one of the most well-studied objects in astronomy.

Since its discovery, countless telescopes have set their sights on this dazzling cosmic crustacean. Through their observations of the great Crab, astronomers have been able to gather invaluable information about the death of stars and the violent aftermath that follows.

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The Crab Nebula is 6,300 light years from Earth and emits an enormous amount of non-optical light that telescopes like NASA’s Chandra X-Ray Observatory spacecraft have been able to capture. The nebula is made up of material that was ejected into space after a massive star underwent a supernova explosion — which is what that Chinese astronomer saw almost 1,000 years ago. It spans approximately 10 light years and is still expanding at an astonishing rate of about 1,118.5 miles per second (1,800 kilometers per second).

The Crab Nebula as seen across a spectrum of light.
The Crab Nebula as seen across a spectrum of light.

This all came to happen when the life of a colossal star came to an end. When stars run out of the fuel that keeps them burning, they bulge up until they physically can’t anymore. Once that happens, all of the star’s mass collapses into its core, creating one of three things: a white dwarf, a neutron star, or even a black hole, if the initial star is large enough.

The star that created the Crab Nebula was medium sized, so it created a highly magnetized neutron star when it collapsed — also known as a pulsar. These extremely dense celestial objects can rotate several hundred times per second and shoot out beams of electromagnetic radiation.

These powerful forces spew gas, dust, and particles left over by the dead star in gigantic bands and waves. By analyzing the Crab Nebula in different light spectrums, astronomers can get a better idea of what exactly is going on under the hood of a dying star.

And of course, they got some pretty stellar pictures of the whole process.