Using snapshots taken over 20 years with NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, astronomers have learned important new details about an eruption from Eta Carinae witnessed on Earth in the mid-19th century.
Chandra data spanning decades has been combined into a new movie that contains frames of Eta Carinae from 1999, 2003, 2009, 2014, and 2020.
Astronomers used the Chandra observations, along with data from European Space Agency’s XMM-Newton, to watch as the stellar eruption from 180 years ago continues to expand into space at speeds up to 4.5 million miles per hour.
The new insights gleaned from Eta Carinae show how different space observatories can work together to help us understand changes in the universe that unfold on human timescales.
Eta Carinae is a system that contains two massive stars (one is about 90 times the mass of the Sun and the other is believed to be about 30 times the Sun’s mass). In the middle of the 19th century, Eta Carinae was observed to experience a huge explosion that astronomers have dubbed the “Great Eruption.”
During this event, Eta Carinae ejected between 10 and 45 times the mass of the Sun. This material became a dense pair of spherical clouds of gas, now called the Homunculus Nebula, on opposite sides of the two stars.
A bright ring of X-rays around the Homunculus Nebula was discovered about 50 years ago and studied in previous Chandra work.
The new movie from Chandra, plus a deep image generated by adding the data together, reveal important hints about Eta Carinae’s volatile history, including rapid expansion of the ring and a previously unknown faint shell of X-rays outside it.
“We’ve interpreted this faint X-ray shell as the blast wave from the Great Eruption in the 1840s,” said Michael Corcoran at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, who led the study. “It tells an important part of Eta Carinae’s backstory that we wouldn’t…
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