National Geographic
Menu

Watch Stunning 3-D View of Doomed Stars’ Last Gasp

This composite illustration shows a Hubble photo and the 3-D models of Eta Carinae's double-lobed nebula. Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center; inset: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble SM4 ERO Team
This composite illustration shows a Hubble photo and 3-D models of Eta Carinae’s double-lobed nebula. Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center; inset: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble SM4 ERO Team

Astronomers have created the first three-dimensional model of one of history’s most famous stellar outbursts, a sight for stargazers both online and in the sky.

Located more than 8,000 light-years away from Earth, the giant double star known as Eta Carinae underwent a huge outburst, called the “Great Eruption,” between 1838 and 1845. The blast made it the brightest stellar sight in the sky at the time. While the stars somehow managed to survive the supernova-like explosion, the blast also produced two lobes of expanding gas that careen out into space at speeds of 1.5 million miles (2.4 million kilometers) per hour. 

The billowing, twin-faced cloud of gas and dust, known as the Homunculus Nebula, has now been captured in stunning detail by European Southern Observatory astronomers. The cloud emanates from two dying giant stars that together are about 120 times more massive than our sun. 

Using the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope coupled with a spectrograph, astronomers made 92 swaths of observations (taken in the infrared, ultraviolet, and visible parts of the spectrum) across the entire length of the nebula. It was the most detailed examination ever attempted of an exploding star.  

The data were then fed into 3-D modeling software, creating a new view of the Homunculus Nebula. The model revealed protrusions, trenches, holes, and irregularities never before seen along the surface of the cloud’s lobes. Each of the gaseous shells is thought to weigh as much as 40 times more than the sun.

Check out this amazing animation sequence, which zooms into a Hubble Space Telescope image of the Homunculus Nebula and then dissolves to the model, which rotates to provide views from various angles:

“Our model indicates that this vast shell of gas and dust has a more complex origin than is generally assumed,” said study co-author Thomas Madura, a NASA Postdoctoral Program fellow at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, in a press statement.

“For the first time, we see evidence suggesting that intense interactions between the stars in the central binary [twin stars] played a significant role in sculpting the nebula we see today.”

The new model is so detailed that the astronomers have even created a downloadable 3-D printed model of the nebula.

“Now anyone with access to a 3-D printer can produce their own version of this incredible object,” said Goddard astrophysicist Theodore Gull, who is also a co-author of the study published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

“While 3-D-printed models will make a terrific visualization tool for anyone interested in astronomy, I see them as particularly valuable for the blind, who now will be able to compare embossed astronomical images with a scientifically accurate representation of the real thing,” he said.

See for Yourself

The Homunculus Nebula (homunculus means “little man” in Latin) appears embedded within the much larger Eta Carinae Nebula, which is visible from the entire Southern Hemisphere.

skychart showing the location of the Carina constellation and the position of Eta Carinae nebula, as seen from the Southern Hemisphere in the early evenings this time of the year. Credit: SkySafari
This sky chart shows the location of the Carina constellation and the position of the Eta Carinae Nebula, as seen from the Southern Hemisphere in the early evenings this time of the year. Credit: SkySafari

It’s fairly easy to track down at the end of the backward hook of the constellation. When observed through a backyard telescope, it’s ghostly gray in color. The host nebula, also known as NGC 3372, is fairly bright to the naked eye (even brighter with binoculars), but the erupting stars themselves are magnitude 6 and 11, putting them in the realm of telescope targets.

A close-up image of the region around the Eta Carinae nebula showing the location of the Homunculus Nebula embedded within. Credit:NASA/ John Gleason & Steve Mandel
A close-up image of the region around the Eta Carinae Nebula shows the location of the Homunculus Nebula embedded within. Credit: NASA/John Gleason & Steve Mandel

For folks using a robotic GoTo telescope, the precise coordinates are right ascension 10h45m6s, declination -59°41′.

Happy hunting!

Follow Andrew Fazekas, the Night Sky Guy, on Twitter and Facebook.