The Winter Crab

Among the Messier Objects dotting the night sky, you will find numerous galaxies, planetary and diffuse nebulae, and open and globular star clusters. But M1, the Crab Nebula, is unique in being the only supernova remnant to make Messier’s list.  Created by a supernova observed by Chinese and Arab astronomers in 1054, the Crab Nebula itself was first observed in 1731.  Located at a distance of roughly 6500 light years, the nebula is expanding at a rate of 1500 km/s. This expansion was discovered in the early 20th century by comparing photographs of the nebula taken several years apart.

To see the Crab Nebula, you’ll need reasonably dark skies. At magnitude 8.4, it can be easily washed out by light pollution.  From my home on the edge of a mid-sized city, it’s just barely visible. But with dark enough skies, it makes a nice target for small telescopes. Located in the constellation Taurus, the easiest way to find the Crab Nebula is to start with the Hyades star cluster (the asterism known as the “head of the bull”). Follow the line formed by the “bottom” of the Hyades to find Zeta Taurii. Going up from there, the Crab Nebula can be easily found. Once the upcoming full moon gets out of the way, we’ll be moving into prime time to see this winter crab. (Does that make it a snow crab?)

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