Fireworks In Hubble’s Eye

(midnight. – promoted by ek hornbeck)

Crab Nebuala

This composite image was assembled from 24 individual exposures taken with the NASA Hubble Space Telescope Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2

July 4, 1054 Kaifeng, China. (Song Dynastic period)

In the 1st year of the period Chih-ho (1054), the 5th moon, the day chi-ch’ou (July 4th) (a “guest star”) appeared approximately several inches south-east of T’ien-kuan(z Tauri)…

From the Sung-shih annals [Breen & McCarthy (1995) p.4]

The Director of the Astronomical Bureau, the esteemed Yang Wei-te, received reports this day of the appearance of a ‘guest star’ in the constellation Taurus proximate to ? Tauri. The politically minded astronomer decides to wait on a more propitious moment to bring the news to the emperor and his court. He is keenly aware that ‘guest stars’ and comets are generally harbingers of bad fortune.  

“On the 22nd day of the 7th month in the 1st year of the period Chih-ho (August 27th 1054) …Yang Wei-te said: “Prostrating myself, I have observed the appearance of a “guest-star”; on the star there was slightly an irridescent yellow colour. Respectfully, according to the dispositions for Emperors, I have prognosticated, and the result said: “The “guest-star” does not infringe upon Aldebaran; this shows that a Plentiful One is Lord, and that the country has a Great Worthy! I request that this (prognostication) be given to the Bureau of Historiography to be preserved”. All the officials presented their congratulations and by Imperial Edict it was ordered that (the prognostication) should be sent to the Bureau of Historiography. (Translation from the Sung-Hui-Yao [History of the Administrative Statutes of the Sung Dynasty by Chang Te-hsiang) Duyvendak (1942) p.92

The wily Yang Wei-Te’s observation, one of four independent Chinese sightings Collins, et al. (1999), was careful to wait for a politically favorable moment (nearly two years later) to charm the Song Emperor Chih-Ho with the report of a the stellar guest. No sense jeopardizing funding by bringing him portents of ill fortune with the Empress’s recent dramatic demise and the disease ravaging the country after a harsh winter Guidoboni, et al. (1994) pp.623-624. The quote continues:

In the 3rd moon of the 1st year of the period Chia-yu (March 19th – April 17th 1056) it was reported that the “guest-star” had become invisible, which was an omen of the departure of guests. Originally this star had become visible in the 5th moon of the 1st year of the period Chihho (June 9th – July 7th 1054) in the eastern heavens, in T’ien-kuan (z Tauri); it was visible by day, like Venus; pointed rays shot out from it on all sides; the colour was reddish-white. Altogether is was visible for 23 days.”

This ‘guest star’ was also noted by Liao dynasty astronomers in present day Beijing. Their independent observation was noted in the Ch’i-tan-Kuo chih by Yeh Lung-li written around 1250 Duyvendak (1942) p.93.

“(In the 23rd year of the period Ch’ung-hsi) in the 8th moon the Lord of the country died ….. Previously there had been a sun-eclipse, and in the 1st moon (January 31st – Febr. 28th 1055) a “guest-star” had appeared in the Pleiades. Liu Yi-sou, Senior Vice-President of the Bureau of Historiography, said: “Now Hsing-tsung has died, (these omens) have indeed come true!” Breen & McCarthy (1995) p.5

This quote shows that, in general, guest stars were hargingers of ill omen. He carefully worked in the ‘yellow’ aspect of the star—yellow is the imperial color. One can understand why Yang Wei-Te wished to wait to make sure his ‘prognostications’ wouldn’t prove to be deleterious to his career. What the Chinese astronomers observed was a spectacular event. A type II superova, which, in the 950 years since, evolved into the astronomical object located in the Constellation Taurus (nearest u03b6 Tauri) and known as the Crab Nebula (image shown above). The star they observed was so bright (estimated to be as bright or brighter than Venus). The Chinese, however, were not the only people to observe the stellar explosion they thought to be a ‘guest star’.

Archeoastronomers found in Japanese archives—the Mei Getsuki (Sadaie Fujiwara ca. 1235), Ichidai yoki (author and date unknown), and Dainihonshi (ca 1715)—that report the appearance of the new star in May, 1054. As the three references are nearly identical, it seems likely that they derive from an earlier source. Breen & McCarthy (1995) p.11

From the Mei Getsuki

“After the second decade of the fourth month, in the second year of the Tenki reign-period, at the ushi [ie. ch’ou] double-hour [01:00-03:00] a “guest-star”[chia-wu] appeared within the [same longitudinal] degrees as the Shi(ken)[ie.Tsui-Hsi] and Shin[ie. Shen][lunar mansions][Orion] and was seen in the east. A hai [ie. po] appeared [near] the Tengan [ie. T’ien-kuan], as large as Jupiter.” Collins, et al. (1999)

While there are discrepancies between the Chinese and Japanese sources both temporal and positional, the consensus opinion is that these references are, indeed, historical observations of the SN 1054 event. These narratives are not the only historical references to the event, researchers have found candidate records of varying degrees of ambiguity from North America, Europe, and the Mid-East.

For example, there are possibly six sites where pictographs [H. Wendt (2001) p.10] attributed to the Anasazi of the Southwest United States that have been linked to observations of the supernova event, including the White Mesa, Navaho Canyon (William C. Miller, 1953-54), the Chaco Canyon, and two undisclosed sites in Arizona. Dan Greening suggests that the relationship of the new star to the moon in the pictographs are referentially consistent for the time of the event. The Anasazi stone carvings may not be the only records discovered in North America, however. According to Ralph Robert Robbins of the University of Texas the Mimbres of New Mexico documented their sighting in their pottery.

1054 Supernova Petrograph

Anasazi pictograph located at Chaco Canyon.


Supernova Petrograph

As an interesting aside, George and Audrey DeLange shared pictures of their visit to one of the undisclosed Arizona sites (follow the page links at the bottom of their site to view some additional pictures of Anasazi petroglyphs).

Of course, the association of these pictographs with the supernova event is speculative and based on the interpretation of the symbols and their relative positions to each other, but Greening, Mitton, and others do make a reasonable case.

Drawing conclusions from these correlations is speculation: we can’t ask the Chacoans why they drew the things they did. But the circumstantial evidence is very strong.    Every 18 1/2 years, the moon and earth return to approximately the same positions they had on July 4, 1054. If you happen to be in PeƱasco Blanco around this time, situate yourself with a telescope under that shelf of West Mesa and look up in the sky. Wait until the moon is in a position pointed to by the fingers of the hand. And then use the diagram under the shelf to position your telescope at the large star in the petrograph. Look in your telescope, and you will see the Crab Nebula. Greening

For many years researchers could find no citations of the event from European and Mid-Eastern sources. Mitton (1978) reported no European references to the phenomenon. Recent scholarship, however, has identified observations from Western Europe, Armenia, Ireland, and Iraq. [(Collins, et al. 1999)]. Even though western Europe was in the middle its Dark Ages the few documented sightings from both Eastern and Western Europe is odd. Considering that both the supernova of 1006 (Stephenson, et al. 1977) and Haley’s comet in 1066 were both observed and documented lead scholars (Thomas 1979)(Zalcman 1979) to speculate that political and religious tensions between the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches was the cause. There was, in fact, considerable tension between Pope Leo IX and Michael Cerularius, Patriarch of Constantinople culminating in the Great Schism (July 1054). So, it is quite possible that both sides made their preferences known and the politically sensitive censored themselves.

It was, in fact, the occasion of Pope Leo IX’s death in April of 1054 that gave us three western European observations of the stellar event. The strongest of these references was written by a monk or cleric (clerk) at the church of St. Peter in Oudenburg (Belgium) Guidoboni et al. 1994 pp.624-625 follows:

1. Tractatus de ecclesia S. Petri Aldenburgensi , taken from Holder-Egger (1898). And at the very hour of his passing there appeared in the heavens, not only in Rome where his body lay, but indeed to men throughout the whole world, an orb of extraordinary brilliance for the space of about half an hour. Collins, et al. (1999)

This eulogy recorded the news for the future but, the citation that could most reasonably be coupled with SN 1054 comes from a chronicle compiled in Bologna in about 1476 called the “Rampona chronicle”.

1. Albano Sorbelli ed., Corpus Chronicorum Bononiensum, vol. 1 (Bologna, 1939), p. 464. In the year of Christ 1058 [1055] emperor Henry III was in his 49th [39th] year. He initially came to Rome in the month of May. At this time there was famine and death throughout the entire land. He occupied the Tiburtinam State [He stayed in the town of Tivoli, east of Rome] for three days in the month of June. This Henry was protector of the mother of the countess Mathilda [Beatrice, widow of the duke of Tuscany and sister of Henry III] from whom the Marquis Boniface begot Mathilda herself. This was the time of Henry. During this time [Henry’s] an extremely bright star appeared in the circuit of the new moon [at the location of the new moon, i.e., east of, and close to, the Sun] at the beginning of the night of the 13th of the kalends. At this time Cardinal Hildebrand, who later became Pope Gregory, was in council as papal legate in France, where he moved against those who were Bishops by way of simony, …Collins, et al. (1999)

It should be noted that the dates in brackets are the acutal dates as the original dates are thought to be errors of transcription.
Scholars, therefore, have made the case that Western Europe was not totally silent about the supernova event, in spite of the political atmosphere, but the argument is open as some researchers question the reliability of these records. As rare as these records are, observations from eastern Europe and even the Mid-East are even more scarce. There are only two documented descriptions from eastern Europe and the Mid-East.

The scarcity of Arabic sightings also concerned historians of astronomy. It is thought that the Arab astronomers were focusing on the mathematical and theoretical aspects of the science and less on observing the immutable heavens (Hoskins 1997) H. Wendt (2001). Yet, an observation was reported by Brecher from a book by Ab? U?aybi’a  in 1242 which quoted Ibn Butl?n, a Christian doctor from Bagdhad that coupled an outbreak of the plague in Constantinople and Egypt to a stellar event.

One of the well known epidemics of our time is that which occurred when the spectacular star (athari kawkab) appeared in Gemini in the year 446 H (1054 April 12-1055 April 1).[Brecher, et al. (1983) p.107]

Finally, Astapovich (1974) cites from the Armenian Chronicles,

1054 of the New Era was the fifth year of the reign of Leo IXth. That year on the Moon’s disk a star has appeared. It happened on the 14th of May in the first part of the night. (Astapovich, I. S. 1974) Collins, et al. (1999)

Collins, et al. (1999) provides a table of documented sightings.

Date Location Source Appearance
Apr 11… Constantinople Diary of Ibn Butl?n Star
Apr 19… Flanders Tractatus de ecclesia Bright light
Apr 24… Ireland Irish Annals Fiery pillar
Late April… Rome De obitu santi Leonis pp IX Bright light
May 10… China Sung-shih hsin-pien Star
May 14… Armenia Etum Patmich Star
May 20… Italy Rampona Chronicles Very bright star
Late May… Japan Mei Getsuki New star
June… Japan Mei Getsuki Star
Jul 4… China Sung hui-yao Star/comet
Jul 27… China Sung hui-yao Star
1055 April… Constantinople Diary of Ibn Butl?n Star
1056 Apr 17… China Sung hui-yao Star

The star that was to become the Crab Nebula was visible until late March or early April of 1056, almost 2 years and then vanished from human view. Not until the advent of telescopes and nearly 700 years later, would the now nebulous object be rediscovered. Then, in 1731, John Bevis found the the nebula and added it to his Uranographia Britannica. Charles Messier independently discovered the nebula 27 years later and recorded the observation was written into his famous Catalog of Nebulae and Star Clusters. In Messier’s catalog the Crab Nebula is designated ‘M1’. Messier later acknowledged Bevis’s original observation and credited him in later editions of his catalog.

Well, there you have it, a brief history of the early observations of one of the most spectacular and beautiful objects in our galaxy. I hope you all enjoyed this presentation and perhaps learned something new. I know I learned quite a bit digging through all the papers and websites.

Thanks for reading. If there’s any interest I’ll write up what happens in a supernova.


George W. Collins II, William P. Claspy, and John C. Martin, A Reinterpretation of Historical References to the Supernova ofa.d. 1054, 1999.

A.Breen & D.McCarthy, A Re-evaluation of the Eastern and Western Records of the Supernova of 1054, 1995.

A.Breen & D.McCarthy, An Evaluation of Astronomical Observations in the Irish Annals, 1997

J. J. L. Duyvendak, Further Data Bearing on the Identification of the Crab Nebula with the Supernova of 1054 A.D., 1942

Guidoboni, E., Marmo, C., & Polcaro, V. F. Do we need to redate the birth of the Crab Nebula? Memorie della Societa Astronomia Italiana, Vol. 65, p.623

Harry Wendt, A Brief History of the Crab Nebula, 2001.

K.Brecher, R.A.Fesen, S.P.Maran, J.C.Brandt, Ancient records and the Crab Nebula supernova 1983

Stephenson, F. Richard; Clark, David H.; Crawford, David F. The supernova of AD 1006 1977

Simon Mitton, 1978. The Crab Nebula. Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York. 194 pages + many illustrations (b/w)


1054 Supernova Petrograph

Sung dynasty chronicles of the appearance of the Crab Nebula Supernova of 1054 AD.

Supernova 1054 – Creation of the Crab Nebula

Messier 1 Supernova Pictograph

The Crab Nebula The World (This is an Interactive Atlas of World Astronomy)


K.Lundmark Suspected new stars recorded in old chronicles … 1921

J.J.L.Duyvendak Further data bearing on the identification of the crab nebula with the supernova of 1054AD 1942

Stephenson, F. Richard; Clark, David H.; Crawford, David F. The supernova of AD 1006 1977

K.P.Hertzog, Identification of ancient novae 1986

Felix Verbelen, Eclipses and supernova 1054 in the Dresden Codex”, 2006

Hrishikesh Joglekar, Aniket Sule, M N Vahia, In search of Indian records of Supernovae, 2006

Jayant V. Narlikar* and Saroja Bhate,, 2001

Clark, D. H. & Stephenson, F. R.,Which historical new stars were supernovae, 1976

Z.-R.Wang, Ancient Guest Stars as harbingers of neutron star formation 1987

D.A.Green, A Catalogue of Galactic Supernova Remnants

David H. Kelley, E. F. Milone, Anthony F Aveni, Exploring Ancient Skies

G. C. Rudie, R. A. Fesen, and T. Yamada, The Crab Nebula’s Dynamical Age as Measured from its Northern Filamentary Jet

Thomas L, (1979) Letter in Scientific America, 240, 3, 10.

Zalcman L, (1979) Physis: Rivista Internazionale de Storia dellas Scienza, 21, p55.

Peng-Yoke; Paar, F. W.; Parsons, P. W., The Chinese guest star of A.D. 1054 and the Crab Nebula”, 1072. Paper unavailable free of charge.

Akopan, V. 1956, Minor Chronicle (Erevan: Hayakakan SSH Gitutyunneri Akademia), 53

Astapovich, I. S., & Tumanian, E. E. 1969, Problems Cosmic-Ray Phys. (Kiev), 6, 156

Astapovich, I. S. 1974, Astron. Tsirk., 826, 6

PS. Cross-post from dKos.


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  1. Excellent and timely!

  2. Excellent!



    Thanks, palantir!

    • Temmoku on February 18, 2009 at 4:14 pm

    that the star/nebula portends a disaster occurring sometime in 1066 and the rise of a new bastard king?

    Great diary! I enjoyed this very much!

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