The star Eta Carinae was once one of the brightest in the sky, but in 1843 it went through a “Great Eruption” when it flared brightly before fading dramatically. This eruption wasn’t a supernova, though it was almost as bright as one, and now astronomers have released a striking visualization of this epic event showing how the eruption formed a stunning nebula.
The visualization uses data from the Hubble Space Telescope and Chandra X-ray Observatory and shows the location of Eta Carinae in the constellation Carina, surrounded by bright young stars. The massive Eta Carinae star expelled one-tenth of its mass in the great eruption, creating a nebula of material that is still expanding today and forms an hourglass shape.
The data from the telescopes allowed the team to develop a 3D model of the nebula which they used to create the visualization. “The team did such an amazing job representing the volumetric layers that viewers can immediately and intuitively comprehend the complex structure around Eta Car,” said Frank Summers, principal visualization scientist at STScI and project lead, in a statement. “We can not only tell the story of the Great Eruption, but also showcase the resulting nebula in 3D.”
But the star isn’t only glowing brightly in the visible light wavelength. It also gives off large amounts of infrared light, which were observed by the now-retired Spitzer Space Telescope.
“Spitzer’s infrared image lets us peer through the dust that obscures our view in visible light to reveal the intricate details and extent of the Carina Nebula around this brilliant star,” said Robert Hurt, lead visualization scientist at Caltech/IPAC and team member.
The point of this visualization isn’t only to provide something cool to look at. The models used to create the visualization also have potential applications in other fields, according to Kim Arcand, visualization lead scientist at the Chandra X-ray Center: “We can take these models like the one for Eta Car and use them in 3D printing and augmented reality programs,” said Arcand. “This means more people can put their hands on the data — literally and virtually — and this makes for better learning and engagement.”