Wings of gas and dust

Credit: NASA, ESA, N. Smith (University of California, Berkeley), and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

Giant bird shapes seem to abound within the glowing gas of the Carina Nebula. Monday we found a stellar swift. Today, it looks like a swan, or pelican, or eagle.

In this part of the image from NASA‘s Hubble Space Telescope, we find the most intense part of the star forming nebula. We also find in the area one of the most massive stars in the galaxy, Eta Carinae, just to the left of center in the image. It is a blue hypergiant star and it is very bright. Astronomers guess that Eta Carinae is 100 to 150 times more massive than our Sun and four million times more luminous. Although it is labeled as the seventh brightest star in the constellation Carina, the light from the star changes year to year. Sometimes it becomes very bright and then becomes very dim, so dim we cannot see it from Earth. In 1841, an outburst occurred that made the star the second brightest object in Earth’s night sky. The material thrown off the star created the Homunculus Nebula, which in Latin means “little man.” It looks like a double bubble around Eta Carinae. Hypergiant stars like Eta Carinae quickly end their lives in a supernova explosion. Eta Carina was known to ancient men who called it Foramen. Chinese astronomers refer to it as Tseen She, or Heaven’s Altars.

The whole Carina Nebula likely would have looked different if the Hubble Space Telescope had been in orbit before 1841. Ultraviolet radiation from the outburst would have lit up the entire nebula, causing it to glow more brightly than before.

The Carina Nebula is a very large nebula in Earth’s skies but it lies far in the southern hemisphere so it’s not well known. Astronomer Nicolas Louis de Lacaille discovered the nebula in 1751-52 during a science trip to the Cape of Good Hope at the tip of Africa.

The Carina Nebula is about 7,500 light-years away toward the constellation Carina the Keel. Carina is a constellation in the southern hemisphere. it is part of an older constellation group called Argo Navis, after the ship that carried Jason and the Argonauts.

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