Scientists obtain sharpest images of one of the heaviest stars (Eta Carinae) in the Galaxy

Image of the heart of Eta Carinae
The new high-resolution image of the heart of Eta Carinae showing the collision between the two winds. This region is about 100 times larger than the diameter of each of the two stars. The yellow ellipse is the binary orbit. The two red dots indicate the positions of the two stars at the time of observation.

A revolutionary study has obtained the sharpest ever images of one of the heaviest stars in our Galaxy.

The images show Eta Carinae and its violent collision of winds in stunning detail. They provide new information on how stars evolve and die. These findings are published in Astronomy and Astrophysics.

Researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Radioastronomy in Germany, Trinity College Dublin in Ireland, and NASA in the USA conducted the study.

Eta Carinae is the heavyweight champion in our galaxy, shining with a power equivalent to 5,000,000 Suns.

It is surrounded by the beautiful Homunculus nebula, which contains the remains of material ejected in 1843 when Eta Carinae was one of the brightest stars in the sky.

At the heart of the nebula, another monster companion star is evaporating while it orbits Eta Carinae. They are blowing powerful outflows that are colliding between the two at a speed of 10,000,000 km/h.

The violent outflowing winds as seen in Eta Carinae herald the end of a star’s life as a supernova, and their study provides scientists with clues about how such stars evolve and die.

In the study, researchers used a new imaging technique, called interferometry, which combines the light from three large telescopes to obtain extremely sharp images.

The new Eta Carinae observations could only have been made with the European Southern Observatory (ESO) telescopes.

Researchers combined the infrared light of Eta Carinae employing three movable 1.8-metre telescopes of the ESO’s Very Large Telescope Interferometer.

Very sharp and detailed images can be obtained when the movable telescopes are located very far apart. Because of that, the final images are as sharp as if they had been observed from a giant 130-metre telescope.

Researchers suggest that these are unprecedented images obtained with the ESO telescopes. They are able to zoom in and see the heavyweight champion in our Galaxy like never before.

The images provide a front-row view of how monster stars interact with each other. The heavier star is winning for now, but the faster companion star may change the fate of the system in the future.

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Citation: Weigelt G, et al. (2016). VLTI-AMBER velocity-resolved aperture-synthesis imaging of η Carinae with a spectral resolution of 12 000. Astronomy and Astrophysics, published online. DOI:
Figure legend: This image is credited to Weigelt G et al.