Thursday, July 3, 2014

960th Anniversary: Supernova That Created Crab Nebula

Pictogram of Supernova SN 1054 and the crescent Moon at a story rock at the Anasazi ruins.  On the far right of this rock are Aztec numerals, indicating the date, but the start date is unknown to us. This is the first documentation, of an observation of a major astronomical event, in North America.
(Image Source: Francis G. Graham)

By Francis G. Graham, Professor Emeritus of Physics, Kent State University
Reporting for SpaceWatchtower

   On July 4, 1054, a remarkable thing was seen in the sky near the morning crescent Moon.  Near the star we know today as Zeta Tauri, a new star not seen before by humans brightened up, as bright as Jupiter.  The Chinese court astronomer dutifully recorded this guest star observing it as he was from Beijing.  The Emperor, Jen Tsung Chao Chen, of the Northern Sung dynasty, seemed not too impressed.

It was also recorded by an astronomer in Japan, and astronomers in Baghdad were abuzz also.
Omar Khayyam was a young boy at the time  and Al Qa’im was the Caliph at Baghdad.   In North America, in the city of the Anasazi, in the western desert, a resident made a small drawing of the supernova.  Unfortunately the Anasazi later  abandoned their city and we have not much more information.

    The supernova faded from history when the gases of the expanding supernova remnant were rediscovered by Charles Messier in 1758 and listed as #1 in his famous catalog.   It, however, was earlier glimpsed by John Bevis in 1731.   In 2014, Curtis Hughes took this wonderful image of the expanding gases, nicknamed by Lord Rosse “The Crab Nebula”.

Curt Hughes’ January 14, 2014 picture of The Crab Nebula.  It is mostly made of helium.

              The question naturally arises why the Europeans did not record the supernova, as did the Arabs, Japanese, Anasazi, and Chinese.  Speculation has focused on the teachings of Aristotle, accepted in Europe at the time, which asserted that the sky was unchanging, and anyone who observed it would not want to be seen as disagreeing with dogma.  But the whole Church university movement had not yet started, and what was or was not heresy was very much a matter of caprice in the 11th century.  It could be that Europe was merely cloudy for a month; here in Pittsburgh it was mostly cloudy for a month in January this year except for one night.

     We must keep in mind, too, that in 1054 Europe had lost much of the civilization of the Greek-Roman tradition (although not all).  Many kings were illiterate.  The higher civilization of China did not have much to do with Europe then because it was a very violent place, and trade was minimal then. This too could well have accounted for the lack of European records. Europe, of course, would later go through a renaissance and recover its lost learning, but in 1054 that had not yet happened.
Photograph of Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, site of the Anasazi Pictograph of Supernova SN 1054:
Link >>>

Illustration from Burnham's Celestial Handbook of what the crescent Moon and Supernova may have looked like on July 4, 1054: Link >>>

More on Chaco Canyon, New Mexico: Link >>>

More on the Anasazi / Ancient Pueblo Peoples:
Link >>>

More on Supernova SN 1054: Link >>>

More on the Crab Nebula: Link >>>

Source: Francis G. Graham is Professor Emeritus of Physics at Kent State University, former Planetarium and Observatory Lecturer at Pittsburgh's original Buhl Planetarium and Institute of Popular Science, and a member of the Steering Committee of Friends of the Zeiss. He reports periodically for SpaceWatchtower, a project of Friends of the Zeiss.

2014: 75th Year of Pittsburgh's Buhl Planetarium Historic Zeiss II Planetarium Projector at Pittsburgh's original Buhl Planetarium and Institute of Popular Science.

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