An international team of astronomers has developed a 3D model of a giant cloud ejected by the massive binary system Eta Carinae during its 19th century outburst. Eta Carinae lies about 7,500 light-years away in the southern constellation of Carina and is one of the most massive binary systems astronomers can study in detail. The smaller star is about 30 times the mass of the sun and may be as much as a million times more luminous. The primary star contains about 90 solar masses and emits 5 million times the sun's energy output. Both stars are fated to end their lives in spectacular supernova explosions.
Between 1838 and 1845, Eta Carinae underwent a period of unusual variability during which it briefly outshone Canopus, normally the second-brightest star. As a part of this event, which astronomers call the Great Eruption, a gaseous shell containing at least 10 and perhaps as much as 40 times the sun's mass was shot into space. This material forms a twin-lobed dust-filled cloud known as the Homunculus Nebula, which is now about a light-year long and continues to expand at more than 1.3 million mph (2.1 million km/h).
Using the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope and its X-Shooter spectrograph, the team imaged near-infrared, visible and ultraviolet wavelengths along 92 separate swaths across the nebula, making the most complete spectral map to date. The researchers have used the spatial and velocity information provided by this data to create the first high-resolution 3D model of the Homunculus Nebula.
The shape model was developed using only a single emission line of near-infrared light emitted by molecular hydrogen gas. The characteristic 2.12-micron light shifts in wavelength slightly depending on the speed and direction of the expanding gas, allowing the team to probe even dust-obscured portions of the Homunculus that face away from Earth.