NASA’s Chandra recalls the story of the Great Explosion of the 1840s


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Credit: NASA/SAO/GSFC/M. Corcoran et al.

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Credit: NASA/SAO/GSFC/M. Corcoran et al.

Using snapshots taken over 20 years with NASA’s Chandra

Chandra data spanning decades has been combined into a new movie that includes frames of Eta Carinae from 1999, 2003, 2009, 2014 and 2020. Astronomers used data from ESA’s (European Space Agency) XMM-Newton as well as Chandra observations. Watch as a stellar explosion from 180 years ago spreads through space at 4.5 million miles per hour. New insights from Eta Carinae show how different space observatories can work together to help us understand changes in the universe that unfold on human time scales.

A paper describing these results appears The Astrophysical Journal,

Eta Carinae is a system consisting of two giant stars (one is thought to be about 90 times the Sun’s mass and the other about 30 times the Sun’s mass). In the mid-19th century, Eta Carinae experienced a massive explosion that astronomers have dubbed the “Great Bang”. During this event, Eta Carinae emitted a mass 10 to 45 times the mass of the Sun. This material became a dense pair of spherical clouds of gas on opposite sides of the two stars, now called the Homunculus Nebula.



A bright ring of X-rays around the Homunculus Nebula was discovered about 50 years ago and studied in previous Chandra work. Chandra’s new movie, as well as a deeper image created by stitching together the data, reveal important clues about Eta Carinae’s unstable history, including the rapid expansion of the ring and a previously unknown faint shell of X-rays just outside it. Is included.

“We interpreted this faint “It tells an important part of Eta Carinae’s back story that we might not otherwise know.”

Because the newly discovered outer X-ray shell has a similar shape and orientation to that of the Homunculus Nebula, Corcoran and colleagues believe the two structures have a common origin.

Based on the motion of clumps of gas previously observed in data from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, the idea is that material was blasted away from Eta Carinae long before the Great Eruption of 1843 – between 1200 and 1800. Later, the fiery blast wave from the Big Bang tore through space, colliding and heating the clusters to millions of degrees to create bright X-ray rings. The blast wave has now gone beyond the bright ring.


Credit: NASA

“The shape of this faint X-ray shell is a plot twist in my mind,” said co-author Kenji Hamaguchi, a researcher at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and NASA Goddard. “This shows us that the faint shell, homunculus, and bright inner ring likely come from explosions in the star system.”

With XMM-Newton, researchers observed that Eta Carinae’s . The authors applied a simple model to estimate how bright Eta Carinae was in Had come out from.

The researchers combined this information with estimates of how much gas was released to determine that the Great Eruption probably involved two explosions. There was a first, rapid ejection of a small amount of bright, low-density gas that generated an X-ray blast wave. This was followed by a slow ejection of dense gas which eventually formed the Homunculus Nebula.

A team led by Nathan Smith of the University of Arizona, one of the co-authors of the new X-ray study, has previously suggested that the Big Bang was caused by the merger of two stars in what was originally a triple system. This would also explain the ring-like structure seen in X-rays as this would cause the material to be extruded in a flat plane.

“The story of Eta Carinae is becoming more and more interesting,” Smith said. “All evidence is suggesting that Eta Carinae survived a very powerful explosion that would normally destroy a star. I can’t wait for the next episode of Data to find out what else Eta Carinae has in store for us.” Has brought a surprise.”

more information:
Michael F. Corcoran et al., Expansion of the X-ray nebula around CAR, The Astrophysical Journal (2022). DOI: 10.3847/1538-4357/ac8f27

Journal Information:
Astrophysical Journal


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