Hubble for the Holidays: Eta Carinae

“We find them smaller and fainter, in constantly increasing numbers, and we know that we are reaching into space, farther and farther, until, with the faintest nebulae that can be detected with the greatest telescopes, we arrive at the frontier of the known Universe.” –Edwin Hubble

There’s really only one way to appreciate just how far we’ve come in our quest to learn about the Universe thanks to the Hubble Space Telescope.

That is, to take a look at something before the Hubble Space Telescope came along, and then to look at it with Hubble. Preferably, we can look at it multiple times, as Hubble has undergone a number of upgrades throughout its 20 years in space!

Today’s Hubble for the Holidays object? Eta Carinae.

The Carina Nebula, NGC 3372 (shown above), is a hotbed of supermassive, young stars. With at least 10 stars over fifty times the mass of our Sun, it’s clear that this is a very special region.

But one star in this nebula has distinguished itself over the centuries: in 1843, Eta Carinae became the 2nd brightest star in the sky (behind Sirius), even though it’s more than 7,000 light years away! (Sirius, by comparison, is less than nine light years away!)

So, with a brief, incredible brightening 160 years ago, does this star look particularly interesting today, as a result?

Image Credit: Australian Astronomical Observatory; David Malin.

Back in the 1980s, teams from the ground were struggling to see what was going on with this star. The Australian Astronomical Observatory’s effort, above, was really the best pre-Hubble image we got of what’s going on. (For a deeper story, check this site out.)

But Hubble’s first crack at it changed everything.

This 1991 image, taken with Hubble’s primitivefirst camera and imperfect mirror, shows a very clear “double mushroom cloud” surrounding this star; likely the result of — what else — a tremendous nuclear explosion.

But the first Hubble servicing mission, in 1993, turned this telescope into the powerhouse we know and love. Here’s what happened when Hubble turned its eye back on Eta Carina the next year: 1994.

Just… wow.

And that’s why this is called the Homunculus nebula.

But Hubble’s story with Eta Carinae doesn’t stop there. It went after it once again in 1996,

and more recently in 2009.

So enjoy the beauty of Eta Carinae thanks to Hubble!

Remember, it isn’t like you can’t get a beautiful picture of Eta Carinae and its surroundings from the ground.

Image credit: AAO and David Malin, again.

But the detail we can see thanks to Hubble?

It’s no stretch to say that it’s absolutely changed everything. Enjoy!