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Deep-space images show violent winds colliding inside Eta Carinae

"The images provide us with a front-row view of how monster stars interact with each other," said astrophysicist Jose Groh.

By Brooks Hays
Deep-space images show violent winds colliding inside Eta Carinae
The Homunculus Nebula surrounding the star system Eta Carinae is situated within the larger Carina Nebula. Photo by ESO/G. Weigelt

DUBLIN, Ireland, Oct. 19 (UPI) -- New images captured by European Southern Observatory telescopes have revealed violent wind collisions taking place inside Eta Carinae, one of the heaviest stars in the galaxy.

Eta Carinae, which has a luminosity equivalent to 5 million suns, was also once one of the brightest stars in the Milky Way, but it lost its luster in 1843 when it imploded in a violent supernova, ejecting much of its stellar material into space. Much of the ejected material came to form Homunculus Nebula, a double-lobed cloud of gas and dust being constantly sculpted by stellar winds.

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The new images reveal the violent forces churning inside Eta Carinae and the Homunculus Nebula in great detail. Astronomers created the incredibly detailed and sharp images by combining infrared observations made by three different ESO telescopes.

"We were able to zoom in and see the heavyweight champion in our Galaxy like never before," Jose Groh, a professor of astrophysics at Trinity College Dublin, explained in a news release. "The images provide us with a front-row view of how monster stars interact with each other."

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A companion star orbits Eta Carinae. As the two stars circle each other, they continue to eject material at high speeds. The violent stellar winds collide at the center of the star system, and these collisions shape the surrounding nebula.

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The hot gas at the center of Eta Carinae emits significant amounts of infrared light. The latest ESO images allowed astronomers to trace this light and the movement of gas as it is pushed around by the colliding wind.

These images are offering scientists a chance to study the evolution of massive, dying star systems. They also reveal the evolving relationship between two companion stars, both shedding large amounts of stellar material.

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"Our dreams came true, because we can now get extremely sharp images in the infrared regime," astrophysics professor Gerd Weigelt added. "The ESO interferometer provides us with a unique opportunity to improve our physical understanding of Eta Carinae and many other monster objects."

Researchers detailed their survey of Eta Carinae in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics.

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