weic2417 — Photo Release

Investigating the origins of the Crab Nebula with Webb

New data revise our view of this unusual supernova explosion.

17 June 2024

The Crab Nebula is a nearby example of the debris left behind when a star undergoes a violent death in a supernova explosion. However, despite decades of study, this supernova remnant continues to maintain a degree of mystery: what type of star was responsible for the creation of the Crab Nebula, and what was the nature of the explosion? The NASA/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope has provided a new view of the Crab, including the highest-quality infrared data yet available to aid scientists as they explore the detailed structure and chemical composition of the remnant. These clues are helping to unravel the unusual way that the star exploded about 1000 years ago.

A team of scientists used the NASA/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope to parse the composition of the Crab Nebula, a supernova remnant located 6500 light-years away in the constellation Taurus. With the telescope’s MIRI (Mid-Infared Instrument) and NIRCam (Near-Infrared Camera), the team gathered data that are helping to clarify the Crab Nebula’s history.

The Crab Nebula is the result of a core-collapse supernova that was the death of a massive star. The supernova explosion itself was seen on Earth in 1054 CE and was bright enough to view during the daytime. The much fainter remnant observed today is an expanding shell of gas and dust, and an outflowing wind powered by a pulsar, a rapidly spinning and highly magnetised neutron star.

The Crab Nebula is also highly unusual. Its atypical composition and very low explosion energy have previously led astronomers to think it was an electron-capture supernova — a rare type of explosion that arises from a star with a less-evolved core made of oxygen, neon, and magnesium, rather than a more typical iron core.

Past research efforts have calculated the total kinetic energy of the explosion based on the quantity and velocities of the present-day ejecta. Astronomers deduced that the nature of the explosion was one of relatively low energy (less than one-tenth that of a normal supernova), and the progenitor star’s mass was in the range of eight to 10 solar masses — teetering on the thin line between stars that experience a violent supernova death and those that do not.

However, inconsistencies exist between the electron-capture supernova theory and observations of the Crab, particularly the observed rapid motion of the pulsar. In recent years, astronomers have also improved their understanding of iron-core-collapse supernovae and now think that this type can also produce low-energy explosions, providing the stellar mass is adequately low.

To lower the level of uncertainty about the Crab’s progenitor star and the nature of the explosion, the science team used Webb’s spectroscopic capabilities to home in on two areas located within the Crab’s inner filaments.

Theories predict that because of the different chemical composition of the core in an electron-capture supernova, the nickel to iron (Ni/Fe) abundance ratio should be much higher than the ratio measured in our Sun (which contains these elements from previous generations of stars). Studies in the late 1980s and early 1990s measured the Ni/Fe ratio within the Crab using optical and near-infrared data and noted a high Ni/Fe abundance ratio that seemed to favour the electron-capture supernova scenario.

The Webb telescope, with its sensitive infrared capabilities, is now advancing Crab Nebula research. The team used MIRI’s spectroscopic abilities to measure the nickel and iron emission lines, resulting in a more reliable estimate of the Ni/Fe abundance ratio. They found that the ratio was still elevated compared to the Sun, but only modestly so and much lower in comparison to earlier estimates.

The revised values are consistent with electron-capture, but do not rule out an iron-core-collapse explosion from a similarly low-mass star. (Higher-energy explosions from higher-mass stars are expected to produce Ni/Fe ratios closer to solar abundances.) Further observational and theoretical work will be needed to distinguish between these two possibilities.

Besides pulling spectral data from two small regions of the Crab Nebula’s interior to measure the abundance ratio, the telescope also observed the remnant’s broader environment to understand details of the synchrotron emission and the dust distribution.

The images and data collected by MIRI enabled the team to isolate the dust emission within the Crab and map it in high resolution for the first time. By mapping the warm dust emission with Webb, and even combining it with the Herschel Space Observatory’s data on cooler dust grains, the team created a well-rounded picture of the dust distribution: the outermost filaments contain relatively warmer dust, while cooler grains are prevalent near the centre.

These findings have been accepted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

The observations were taken as part of the Webb General Observer programme 1714.

More information

Webb is the largest, most powerful telescope ever launched into space. Under an international collaboration agreement, ESA provided the telescope’s launch service, using the Ariane 5 launch vehicle. Working with partners, ESA was responsible for the development and qualification of Ariane 5 adaptations for the Webb mission and for the procurement of the launch service by Arianespace. ESA also provided the workhorse spectrograph NIRSpec and 50% of the mid-infrared instrument MIRI, which was designed and built by a consortium of nationally funded European Institutes (The MIRI European Consortium) in partnership with JPL and the University of Arizona.

Webb is an international partnership between NASA, ESA and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA).



Bethany Downer
ESA/Webb Chief Science Communications Officer
Email: [email protected]

Ninja Menning
ESA Newsroom and Media Relations Office
Email: [email protected]

About the Release

Release No.:weic2417


Crab Nebula (MIRI and NIRCam image)
Crab Nebula (MIRI and NIRCam image)
Crab Nebula (MIRI and NIRCam image, annotated)
Crab Nebula (MIRI and NIRCam image, annotated)


Pan of the Crab Nebula (MIRI and NIRCam image)
Pan of the Crab Nebula (MIRI and NIRCam image)

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