Eta Carinae was once so bright that sailors used it alongside the North Star to Navigate. But this was only for a brief period of time in the 19th century. New images taken by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope and Chandra X-Ray Observatory have given some insight into what exactly caused the star’s outburst that ed it to burn so rightly for so brief a time.
NASA says that new observations of Eta Carinae show that excess violet light escapes along the star’s equatorial plane between the bipolar lobes. Apparently, there is relatively little dusty debris between the lobes down by the star; most of the blue light is able to escape. The lobes, on the other hand, says NASA, contain large amounts of dust which preferentially absorb blue light, causing the lobes to appear reddish.
Estimated to be 100 times more massive than our Sun, Eta Carinae may be one of the most massive stars in the Milky Way Galaxy. It radiates about five million times more power than the Sun. The star remains one of the great mysteries of stellar astronomy, and the new Hubble images raise further puzzles. NASA hopes that eventually, its outburst may provide unique clues to other, more modest stellar bipolar explosions and to hydrodynamic flows from stars in general.
Eta Carinae was the site of a giant outburst about 150 years ago, when it became one of the brightest stars in the southern sky. Though the star released as much visible light as a supernova explosion, it survived the outburst. Somehow, the explosion produced two polar lobes and a large thin equatorial disk, all moving outward at about 1.5 million miles per hour.
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Eta Carinae is more than 8,000 light-years away and structures only 10 billion miles across (about the diameter of our solar system) can be distinguished. Dust lanes, tiny condensations, and strange radial streaks all appear with unprecedented clarity, says NASA.
The Hubble telescope observed Eta Carinae in September 1995 with the Wide Field Planetary Camera 2 (WFPC2). Images taken through red and near-ultraviolet filters were subsequently combined to produce the color image shown. A sequence of eight exposures was necessary to cover the object’s huge dynamic range: the outer ejecta blobs are 100,000 times fainter than the brilliant central star.