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X-treme Dreams

October 4, 1999 ::

Chandra X-ray of Crab Nebula
Chandra X-ray image of the Crab Nebula
It was a slow night, 2:23:12 a.m. on the graveyard shift at the Chandra Operations Center. A long observation of the Crab Nebula was in progress. Henrietta Photon, duty scientist for this shift, was seated at the console, watching data come in while she doodled on a pad trying to sketch out some of the consequences of p-brane theory for the tearing of space-time inside a black hole. From time to time, she would glance at the monitor as the X-ray image of the Crab Nebula took form. She yawned and smiled. It was spectacular.

A low rumble rolled through the building.

"Those weirdos on the eighth floor are at it again," thought Henrietta, and wondered for the thousandth time what the folks who worked at Wormhole Rapid Transit really did.

They weren't really weirdos, Henrietta thought. Just different. BG was actually pretty nice, in a bizarre sort of way, if you overlooked ...
Illustration of a wormhole
Illustration of a wormhole Image courtesy of Andrew Hamilton

"Whooaaaahhh...What was that?!!"

The building shuddered violently. It was all Henrietta could do to keep the monitor from crashing onto the floor. Her cell phone rang.
"We did it, Henri! We finally did it!! Wow, we're going to be rich and famous! Wow wow wow wow wow..."

"Stop barking, BG," she said. "Did what?"

"Go to the window and look out! Go go go go!"

Henriettta hurried to the window.


"What do you think?"

Crab Nebula - optical
Close up of Crab Nebula optical image
Image: Palomar Obs.
The sky, which had been dark moments before, was now an eerie deep blue. Brilliant, luminescent green and yellow streamers of light stretched from horizon to horizon. Toward the north, shimmering curtains of light from an awesome aurora took her breath away.
"What's going on, BG?"

"We're in the middle of the Crab Nebula! We finally found the wormhole. You're seeing the blue synchrotron radiation from the high-energy electrons and positrons, up close and personal. Those streamers are the filaments of gas at tens of thousands of degrees. And that bright star..."

High in the sky, a star about ten times brighter than Venus was visible. It seemed to be flickering very rapidly- the Crab pulsar!
"Assuming you're right," Henrietta said, "Not that I believe you, but just assuming."

"Yeah, yeah."

"If you're right, we're in big trouble."

"I know, I know," BG panted. "The permits. I never did get around to filling out all those forms."

"Well, there's that, but I was thinking about something a little more serious."

"Like what?"

"Like that aurora. The Crab is an intense X-ray source and we're right in the middle of it. There's too much high-energy stuff hitting our upper atmosphere. Thousands of times more than we usually get. It's not good. All those particles-- millions of times more-will give us a big dose of radiation. It's sensational, but we really should be getting back.."

"Okay, okay. Let me type in the coordinates to reverse our trajectory...there."

Another violent shudder knocked Henrietta to the floor. As she got up the view had definitely changed, but not for the better.

"Uh, oh."

"What happened BG."

"We are now only about 200 million miles from the pulsar. Something must be wrong with my program. I guess I'll have to debug it."

The Crab neutron star, or pulsar, was blazing away at 10 times the brightness of the noonday Sun. Henrietta knew that they would get a lethal dose of radiation in a few hours, and that the Earth's atmosphere would soon evaporate under the intense X-ray and gamma ray fluxes. Incredible lightning bolts due to the voltages from the low frequency pulsar radiation were striking all around, setting off deafening thunderclaps.

"I'll try again," BG said diffidently.

"Wait," Henrietta demanded. "I think you've got the wrong metric! Type in this command!"

"Okay, okay."

"Alpha 0532, dec 22.01, G mu nu = Inv G 1."

"Got it. Here goes nothing!"

Another violent shudder, and...the sky was dark again. The lights on the Tobin Bridge winked through an incoming fog to the northwest. They were back home in the solar system!

Henrietta said goodbye to BG, who said he had some forms to fill out. She slumped down in front of the monitor. The time clock indicated that it was 2:23:11 a.m.

Dan, the SOT team leader, came by to check with her before going home. He looked at the softly glowing X-ray image of the Crab.

"Beautiful isn't it?" he said.

"Yeah, but I sure wouldn't want to live there," Henrietta said.


"Oh never mind. Just dreaming."

(The scientific description of the Earth in the vicinity of the Crab Nebula can be found in: F. Seward, "A Trip to the Crab Nebula" J. British Interplanetary Society, Vo. 31, 83 (1978)).

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    Disclaimer: This material is being kept online for historical purposes. Though accurate at the time of publication, it is no longer being updated. The page may contain broken links or outdated information, and parts may not function in current web browsers. Visit for current information.

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