Hubble Captures Cosmic Fireworks at Eta Carinae—One of the Biggest and Brightest Stars in the Milky Way

The Hubble Space Telescope has captured a spectacular image which reveals new details of a cosmic explosion taking place around 7,500 light years away in a double star-system known as Eta Carinae.

Intriguingly, this explosion has been ongoing since 1838 when astronomers detected a huge outburst in the system—what is now known as the "Great Eruption."

This event caused the system to become the second brightest star in the sky in 1844, surpassed only by Sirius—which is located nearly 1,000 times closer to our planet.

Although it is still one of the brightest stars in the galaxy, the light given off by the initial event has gradually subsided over time. The new images demonstrate how the explosion has persisted for hundreds of years. However, it should be noted that because Eta is so far away, the light from it takes thousands of years to reach us, meaning we are viewing these events as they were in the distant past.

While the exact cause of the Great Eruption is unknown, scientists know that Eta has previously experienced explosions like these, which eject vast amounts of gas and dust into the surrounding regions of space as shown in the images.

We know that the larger of the two stars in the system is coming to the end of its life and, as such, it is very unstable. In fact, the Great Eruption nearly destroyed the system and scientists predict that the star's life will eventually come to an end in an even more powerful, cataclysmic supernova—although this may have already happened and we simply haven't been able to observe it yet.

"The system has been blighted by chaotic eruptions, often blasting parts of itself into space," Bethany Downer, a spokesperson from Hubble, said in a statement provided to Newsweek. "During part of its adult life, Eta Carinae has undergone a series of eruptions, becoming extremely bright during each episode, before fading away. One explanation for the monster star's antics is that the convulsions were caused by a complex interplay of as many as three stars, all gravitationally bound in one system."

The new images—captured by Hubble's Wide Field Camera 3—reveal previously unknown features of the material that surrounds the star, according to researchers.

"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 from the University of Arizona and lead investigator of the Hubble program, 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."

"We had used Hubble for decades to study Eta Carinae in visible and infrared light, and we thought we had a pretty full account of its ejected debris. But this new ultraviolet-light image looks astonishingly different, revealing gas we did not see in either visible-light or infrared images," Smith said.

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), and J. Morse (BoldlyGo Institute, New York

This article was updated to include comments from Bethany Downer.