Becoming Supernova

Credit: ESA/Hubble and NASA


Hidden in this churning and expanding nebula is a supernova on the verge of being.

Explore Eta Carinae or the Homonculus Nebula. What stories or shapes do you see? Leave a note below.

Eta Carinae is a star on the brink of ultimate death. Scientists expect it to become a supernova at any moment; or within the next million years. Supernovae are the ultimate end of massive stars. Huge stars like Eta Carinae are tens of times more massive than our Sun. They burn through their hydrogen fuel within just a few million years. At the end of their lives, they become unstable and explode. Supernovae release so much energy that for short periods of time they outshine an entire galaxy. This process sprinkles space with elements heavier than oxygen, such as neon, silicon, aluminum, iron, potassium, iron, and gold. The elements needed for life on Earth were created in a supernova blast billions of years ago.

Astronomers just don’t know the exact time of death. The star varies in brightness through time. At the beginning of the 19th century, the binary star system was faint; hardly visible against the background of stars. By April 1843, the star was the second brightest star in the sky behind Sirius. The star dimmed again in the 20th century. Today, it is visible to the naked eye.

The dumbbell shape of material has been thrown the star in waves creating uneven lobes and spikes in the nebula. When astronomers viewed the nebula through telescopes in the 1800s, the lobes of matter resembled a person. They called it the Homonculus Nebula. This image is the the most detailed Hubble image yet of the star.

Eta Carinae is found about 7,500 light years from Earth within the vast star-making cloud known as the Carina Nebula. Both are within the constellation Carina, the Keel of Jason’s mythical ship the Argo.

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