Hubble Sees ‘Great Eruption’ Of Stars Forming Colorful Cosmic Fireworks

The Hubble Space Telescope captured a rare moment that occurred in 1838. The latest image from the spacecraft shows cosmic fireworks that scientists describe as the “Great Eruption” of a star system 7,500 light years from Earth.

The system Eta Carinae was found in the Carina constellation. But how did Hubble capture a gigantic cosmic event that happened in the past two centuries? 

It is because of the speed of light. The signals from the Great Eruption continued to travel from its origin and it took years to reach Earth. 

In April 1844, Eta Carinae became the second-brightest star in the sky. It even helped ships navigate the southern seas.

The Great Eruption occurred when a large, unstable star was nearing the end of its lifespan. Researchers said that the event started when the main star cannibalized one of the other stars in the system.

The collision made giant fireworks around the stars due to gas and dust. Hubble captured the light and other signals from the Great Eruption for several decades. 

But the latest image released by scientists was the nebula in ultraviolet light. It appears a mix of blue and red, which was caused by glowing nitrogen.

"We've discovered a large amount of warm gas that was ejected in the Great Eruption but hasn't yet collided with the other material surrounding Eta Carinae," Nathan Smith, lead researcher from the University of Arizona's Steward Observatory, said in a statement

"Most of the emission is located where we expected to find an empty cavity. This extra material is fast, and it 'ups the ante' in terms of the total energy of an already powerful stellar blast," he added. 

The researchers noted they have yet to know if Eta Carinae led into a supernova, which would mark the final show of the Great Eruption. To see that, it would take another 7,500 years for light from the system to reach Earth. 

Smith said his team hopes to use findings about Eta Carinae to study other systems, such as protostars or other dying stars. He added Hubble has the capability to capture such events. 

Eta Carinae Telescopes, including Hubble, have monitored the Eta Carinae star system for more than two decades. It has been prone to violent outbursts, including an episode in the 1840s during which ejected material formed the bipolar bubbles seen here. NASA, ESA, N. Smith (University of Arizona, Tucson), J. Morse (BoldlyGo Institute, New York)