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NASA's Chandra Releases Doubleheader of Blockbuster Hits
Visual Description:

  • Movies of two famous objects in space, the Crab Nebula and Cassiopeia A, are being released.

  • These movies are made from about two decades of data collected by NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory.

  • In the Crab Nebula, the movie shows changes in both the rings around the pulsar and the jets it is blasting into space.

  • The Cas A movie features how the debris field from the supernova remnant, including its blast wave, are expanding.

New movies of two of the most famous objects in the sky — the Crab Nebula and Cassiopeia A — are being released from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory. Each includes X-ray data collected by Chandra over about two decades. They show dramatic changes in the debris and radiation remaining after the explosion of two massive stars in our galaxy.

The Crab Nebula, the result of a bright supernova explosion seen by Chinese and other astronomers in the year 1054, is 6,500 light-years from Earth. At its center is a neutron star, a super-dense compact object produced by the supernova. As it rotates at about 30 times per second, its beam of radiation passes over the Earth every rotation, like a cosmic lighthouse.

As the young pulsar slows down, large amounts of energy are injected into its surroundings. In particular, a high-speed wind of matter and anti-matter particles plows into the surrounding nebula, creating a shock wave that forms the ring seen in the movie. Jets from the poles of the pulsar spew X-ray emitting matter and antimatter particles in a direction perpendicular to the ring.

Over 22 years, Chandra has taken many observations of the Crab Nebula. With this long runtime, astronomers see clear changes in both the ring and the jets in the new movie. Previous Chandra movies showed images taken from much shorter time periods — a 5-month period between 2000 and 2001 and over 7 months between 2010 and 2011 for another. The longer timeframe highlights mesmerizing fluctuations, including whip-like variations in the X-ray jet that are only seen in this much longer movie. A new set of Chandra observations will be conducted later this year to follow changes in the jet since the last Chandra data was obtained in early 2022.

Crab Nebula Timelapse:

The second billing in this doubleheader is just as spectacular. Cassiopeia A (Cas A for short) is the remains of a supernova that is estimated to have exploded about 340 years ago in Earth’s sky. While other Chandra movies of Cas A have previously been released, including one with data extending from 2000 to 2013, this new movie is substantially longer featuring data from 2000 through to 2019.

The outer region of Cas A shows the expanding blast wave of the explosion. The blast wave is composed of shock waves, similar to the sonic booms generated by a supersonic aircraft. These expanding shock waves are sites where particles are being accelerated to energies that are higher than those achieved by the most powerful accelerator on Earth, the Large Hadron Collider. As the blast wave travels outwards it encounters surrounding material and slows down, generating a second shock wave that travels backwards relative to the blast wave, analogous to a traffic jam travelling backwards from the scene of an accident on a highway.

Cas A has been one of the most highly observed targets and publicly released images from the Chandra mission. It was Chandra's official first-light image in 1999. After the Space Shuttle Columbia launched into orbit, the observatory quickly discovered a point source of X-rays in Cas A’s center for the first time, later confirmed to be a neutron star. Over the years, astronomers have used Chandra to discover evidence for a “superfluid” inside Cas A’s neutron star, to reveal that the original massive star may have turned inside out as it exploded, and to take an important step in pinpointing how giant stars explode. Chandra has also mapped the elements forged inside the star, which are now moving into space to help seed the next generation of stars and planets. More recently, Chandra data was combined with data from NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope to help determine the origin of mysterious structures within the remnant.

Cassiopeia A Timelapse:

The images used in the latest Cas A movie have been created using a state-of-the-art processing technique, led by Yusuke from Rikkyo University in Japan, to fully capitalize on Chandra's sharp X-ray vision. The paper describing their work was published in The Astrophysical Journal and is available online.

These two movies show Chandra’s capabilities of documenting changes in astronomical objects over human timeframes. Such movies would not be possible without Chandra’s archives that serve as public repositories for the data collected over Chandra’s nearly 25 years of operations.

NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center manages the Chandra program. The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory's Chandra X-ray Center controls science from Cambridge Massachusetts and flight operations from Burlington, Massachusetts.


Visual Description:

This is a still image from a split-screen video showing the change of two objects in space over time. The Cassiopeia A supernova remnant is on the left and the Crab Nebula is on the right, divided by a white vertical line.

Cassiopeia A resembles a disk of electric blue light with glowing white streaks. X-rays from Chandra reveal hot gas, mostly from supernova debris from the destroyed star, and include elements like silicon and iron. Brilliant stars in white and gold, seen in optical light from Hubble, permeate the field of view.

The Crab Nebula resembles the shape of a spinning toy top, made of white wispy clouds, resting on its side. The top-like shape is outlined by feathery shrouds of electric blue light. In the center, where the point of the toy top shape meets its flared body, is a ball of brilliant white light. This is the pulsar, a rapidly rotating neutron star, at the heart of the Crab Nebula. Concentric circles surround the pulsar, as if the pulsar was a small pebble that was dropped into a puddle of water. From the bottom of the neutron star, a jet of matter is rushing downward, like scalding hot steam being released from a valve.


Fast Facts for Cassiopeia A Timelapse:
Credit  X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO; Optical: NASA/STScI; Image Processing: NASA/CXC/SAO/J. Major, A. Jubett, K. Arcand
Release Date  April 24, 2024
Scale  Image is about 8 arcmin (25.5 light-years) across.
Category  Supernovas & Supernova Remnants
Coordinates (J2000)  RA 23h 23m 26.7s | Dec +58° 49´ 03.00"
Constellation  Cassiopeia
Observation Dates  22 observations from Jan 30, 2000 to May 13, 2019
Observation Time  342 hours 24 minutes (14 days 6 hours and 24 minutes)
Obs. ID  114,1952,4636-4639, 5319, 9117, 9773, 10935, 12020, 10936,13177, 14229, 14480-14482, 18344, 19903, 19604-19606
Instrument  ACIS
References  Sakai, Y. et al. ApJ, 951, 59; arXiv:2306.13355
Color Code  X-ray: blue and white; Optical: orange
Distance Estimate  About 11,000 light-years
distance arrow

Fast Facts for Crab Nebula Timelapse:
Credit  X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO; Image processing: NASA/CXC/SAO/J. Schmidt, J. Major, A. Jubett, K. Arcand
Release Date  April 24, 2024
Scale  Image is about 5 arcmin (about 9 light years) across.
Category  Supernovas & Supernova Remnants, Neutron Stars/X-ray Binaries
Coordinates (J2000)  RA 05h 34m 32s | Dec +22° 00´ 52"
Constellation  Taurus
Observation Dates  35 observations from Feb 07, 2000 to Mar 15, 2022
Observation Time  54 hours 56 minutes (2 days 6 hours 56 minutes)
Obs. ID  770-773, 769, 1994-2001, 4607, 4621-4624, 5285, 5284, 5550-5553, 5555-5558, 13139-13154, 23539
Instrument  ACIS
Color Code  X-ray: blue and white
Distance Estimate  About 6,500 light-years
distance arrow
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