ESO unlocks the Keyhole

By Phil Plait | February 12, 2009 9:14 pm

The European Southern Observatory just released a whoppingly cool picture:

Whoa. That’s the Carina nebulosity region, a vast complex of stars, gas, and dust in the southern skies, one of if not the largest star-forming regions in the galaxy. This shows only a piece of it 144 light years across (if it looks familiar, Hubble took a similar shot in 2007). Click the image to get a bigger version, or, if you have the time and bandwidth that could swallow a pineapple whole, try grabbing this 134 Mb TIFF image. I’m serious, don’t click that unless you want a seriously big picture. There’s also a video zoom-in on the ESO site.

There’s a lot to see here! The bright star at the lower left, grossly overexposed, is Eta Carinae. I’ve written a few thousand words on that beastie, both here and in my book. And you know what that means: one day it’ll blow, and when it does, well, yikes. It’s one of the most luminous and massive stars in the galaxy, and there’s a small but finite chance that it’ll go all gamma-ray burst on us some day. Happily, it’s not aimed at us if it does, but even as a plain old supernova it’s a terrifying object. It’s a binary, and one of the stars must have about 100 times the mass of the Sun, pretty much at the theoretical limit of how massive a star can be without tearing itself apart.

I’ve written about black holes, galaxies colliding, and even the eventual fate of the Universe. I tell you this to put in perspective that objectively, Eta Car scares the crap out of me.

It can’t hurt us, so don’t worry about it that way. I just mean that the very fact of its existence fills me with awe and a sort of abject terror. Eta Car is 7500 light years away, but it’s so luminous it’s visible to the naked eye (at that distance, you’d need a pretty good telescope to spot the Sun at all). And that’s when it’s just sitting there being all stable and calm. In the 1840s it had an explosive event that blew out twin lobes of matter, each with about the same mass as the Sun. This explosion was just shy of a supernova itself, launching all that gas away from the star at a million miles per hour. So think about a single object that can lob 20 octillion tons of gas at that speed, and tell me the Universe isn’t the most awesome thing in the Universe.

Yeah, a keyhole. OK.

Next to Eta Car is the famous Keyhole Nebula, named such because some astronomer thought it looked like a old-fashioned keyhole. I happen to think there are other things it looks like, but I’m too polite to say just what. And don’t you go shooting your keyboard off in the comments either. This is a PG blog, OK?

Anyway, the Keyhole is clump of gas and dust being pummeled by the forces of the stars around it, as that whole region is. There are two clusters of stars in the image, too, each with several massive members (though not as hefty as Eta, of course) which blow out huge amounts of material, and also flood the region with high-energy ultraviolet light.

All in all, the Carina nebulosity is a gorgeous complex, but it’s one of the most dangerous and inhospitable volumes of space in the galaxy. As much as I dream of wandering the Milky Way via warp drive, there are some places I don’t mind viewing from a distance.

Credit: ESO

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff, Pretty pictures

Comments (41)

  1. Why BA, whatever do you mean?

    I did snort out loud reading the very next paragraph after you mentioned this be a PG blog though. :-)

  2. MadScientist

    In the 1840′s? Don’t you mean in the (1840 – 7500)’s ? :P ~ According to some, that’s some time before the creation of the universe.

    By the way, that’s not a keyhole; it’s the monster from that awful movie ‘Alien’, complete with blade-like appendage. Then again it could be E.T. hanging his head low and smacking his forehead.

  3. Helioprogenus

    Perhaps this is an ignorant question, but with the 19th century explosion, was enough matter blown away to keep a developing supernova at bay? In other words, if a huge star like eta carinae, blows away matter that’s roughly equivalent of two solar masses, would the reduced size have any effect in delaying the inevitable supernova? Would a delayed supernova then have less power?

    I’m well aware that stars eject a great deal of matter before they so through a supernova, but there are still so many variables in predicting the stability of such borderline stars, that it’s possible various matter ejections can play a huge role in a subsequent supernova. Would some stars offer some like-massed stars offer some kind of greater stability than others? What would cause that greater stability? Would the stars metalicity have anything to do with how many ejection episodes a star has before reaching the critical threshold for a supernova?

  4. Patrick
  5. Tiffany

    I think I see the Virgin Mary in the keyhole nubula.

    …oh man, I crack myself up

    (Shane- after I re-read that paragraph, I can see where someone’s gutter-bound mind would go!)

  6. I happen to think there are other things it looks like, but I’m too polite to say just what.

    What’s so impolite about a Tootsie Pop?

    You know, like in that old TV commercial… “How many licks does it take to…”

    Oh, wait. Now I get it.

  7. “… if a huge star like eta carinae, blows away matter that’s roughly equivalent of two solar masses, would the reduced size have any effect in delaying the inevitable supernova? Would a delayed supernova then have less power?”

    The star in question has the mass of over 100 suns so spewing out just two sun’s worth is only a little more than a cosmic belch. It still retains around 99% of its heft. If stars about 10 times as massive as the Sun, shed a significant percentage of their mass, go out with a bang and collapse into black holes, imagine what a monster ten times that can do.

    It would light up our sky and whoever witnesses the Eta Cerinae supernova would easily see it from Earth as he or she wipes a brow in relief that we’re some 45 quadrillion miles away. The GRB would probably be nothing to scoff at either. If for some bizarre reason the gamma ray death beam would be pointing at our planet, we might get to feel the heat of this dying giant on our own skin. And that wouldn’t be good.

    Of course the chances of getting hit with Eta Carinae’s GRB are infinitesimal and that was just a what-if footnote.

  8. Kimpatsu

    I think the Keyhole Nebula looks like the FIFA World Cup Trophy, actually:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/FIFA_World_Cup_Trophy

  9. Jonas E

    Please, Phil, use SI-units instead of imperial units. Imperial units promote sloppy science, especially when Americans work with Europeans or Asians.

    How long is a mile anyway?

  10. Dan Gerhards

    > How long is a mile anyway?

    Why, it’s 1760 yards, 5280 feet, or 63,360 inches. What’s the problem with that?

  11. fco.

    “I happen to think there are other things it looks like, but I’m too polite to say just what.”

    Hermann Rorschach would have something to say about that.

  12. Grand Lunar

    Say Phil, perhaps that can be an idea for another book; scariest objects of the universe! I imagine not just huge stars will make it, but also some scary people whose beliefs cannot compare to something like Eta Car.

    As for the nebula, one could say it’s a fire damaged keyhole.
    Though I’m not sure the Fire Damaged Keyhole Nebula has the same ring to it.

  13. I always thought a mile was 8 furlongs. Or 320 rods.

  14. Ed Bride

    Of course, it’s a keyhole, but also a metaphor: the keyhold to paradise… assuming this makes the grade as a PG comment.

  15. GG

    > How long is a mile anyway?

    1 mile = 1.609344 × 10^13 angstroms
    or if that’s too inconvenient:
    1 mile = 0 AU (may be rounding error)

  16. Mark Craig

    Well, I’ve just found myself a spangly new wallpaper!

  17. Is there a Keymaster of Gozer nebula?

  18. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
  19. José

    In the 1840s it had an explosive event that blew out twin lobes of matter

    It’s plasma universe planet formation in action!

  20. Gonzo

    My mind just went into the gutter after “This is a PG blog, OK?”. Sorry. Seriously though.

  21. Ian

    Looks like a giant bacteriophage to me

  22. !AstralProjectile

    I see the foetus from the end of 2001

    (1 mile=880 fathoms, or 1/3 of a league)

  23. fco.:

    “I happen to think there are other things it looks like, but I’m too polite to say just what.”

    Hermann Rorschach would have something to say about that.

    Yes, but as Freud once said, “sometimes, a nebula is just a nebula.”

    MadScientist:

    In the 1840’s? Don’t you mean in the (1840 – 7500)’s ? :P ~

    It’s common usage to say an event “took place” at the time the light reached the Earth. It’s just easier to say “in the 1840′s” rather than “in the 1840′s, the light from an event which took place some 7,500 years earlier reached the Earth..”

  24. Gary Ansorge

    1 mile = how far I can walk in 17 minutes,,,

    With all the mass blowee offeee EtC is doing, I wonder how that could affect the stars wobble??? As in, if it loses enough mass, in an irregular distribution, the pole direction might shift enough for it to point a GRB right at us,,,oh goody, now I can have something else to worry about,,,
    Oh nose, the sky is falling,,,

    GAry 7

  25. DenverWorkM

    Why is all the coolest stuff in the Southern Hemisphere where all them uneducated backwards folks fail to appreciate the awesomeness?

    Just kiddin friends, as we all know, based on current test score statistics, we colonials may be the most uneducated people in the world. How depressing…

    You now have my permission to rip this post to shreds :o )

  26. QuestionAuthority

    “As much as I dream of wandering the Milky Way via warp drive, there are some places I don’t mind viewing from a distance.”
    Me, too. But I suspect warp drive presupposes some pretty hefty shields as well, eh Mr. Scott? :-D
    Besides, getting close up would spoil the view. It’s hard to appreciate something like this without being far enough away to see it all at once. Otherwise, you’d be like a bacterium trying to ‘look’ at Earth from the surface.

  27. Loaf Of Bread

    The keyhole nebula also bears a vague resemblance to a mushroom shaped cloud.

  28. Michael

    Hello,
    regular reader, first time comment…
    I don’t know if you’ve already seen this… so

    “Welcome to the Universe – by AdromedasWake”
    stunningly beautiful start of a series on the Universe (doh ,)
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MCAmWibS2bI

    watch in HD, it’s worth the wait
    greetings from Austria

  29. MadScientist

    I hope eta-carina has blown and I get to see it shine. I’ve missed all the best astronomical events so far – Halley’s comet was boooo-ring, I missed the comet Hyukutake because I was in the southern hemisphere, clouds came in to block my view of Jupiter as fragments of the comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 hit it, I’ve been missing out on every total solar eclipse. My best view of the Leonids so far has been through clouds, but at least I got to see a few really good trails – definitely no meteor showers though.

  30. Jeffersonian

    Can somebody patronize me and estimate how big our solar system (the 9 planet version) would be in this picture? More than Eta Car sized?

    @Greg Fish / Phil
    “If for some bizarre reason the gamma ray death beam would be pointing at our planet, we might get to feel the heat of this dying giant on our own skin. And that wouldn’t be good.”
    So, then, potentially there is an Earth-like (+/-) planet getting cooked?

  31. Xbrico

    A mile = 5.25c of Gas at NY average prices, or $100 at UK average prices (all scientific extrapolations of cost are approximately correct, so my be inapproximately wrong – or even accurately wrong if thats precisely the correct opposite, I think :D )

    Sweet desktop though, munches a nice ammount of memory.

    p.s. It also looks like it could be the Asguard Head Nebula

  32. That next to last paragraph is an absolute hoot! Thanks for being so entertaining. All the members thank you.

  33. WJM

    Am I the only one with a dirty mind?

    Oh, wait, no, I’m not. Phew.

  34. firemancarl

    Please, Phil, use SI-units instead of imperial units

    yeah, especially since the empire was crushed by the rebellion and now we have the new Republic!

  35. Jeffersonian: With the Nebula being 144 light years across, and our solar system being just several light HOURS across… You should start to see where I’m going. Our solar system fits into one pixel of that image, together with lots of empty space.

  36. StevoR

    Eta Carinae has to be my all-time favourite star! :-D 8)

    Somewhere between four to five * million * times as brightas the Sun, dramatically explosive, surrounded by many shells of nebulosity -the homunculus, the keyhole, the HST-imaged lobes with a thin white hot disk separating them. A binary we’ve just found with a Wolf-Rayet star (probably?) that shed its outer layers in a titanic explosion making it briefly a rival to Sirius and gretaer than Canopus – even as seen from Earth seven thousand five hundred odd light years away. Pairedwitha supermassive B-type (probably) supergiant star with around 100 times our Sun’s mass and .. just .. Wow! :-)

    This extreme awe-inspiring star still blows my mind every time I think about it! :-)

    Its my hope that in this the International Year of Astronomy ’09 Eta Carinae finally does explode safely but spectacularly as a Wolf-Rayet supernova and showers down a whole wealth of marvellous scientific information for us to enjoy. Of course, the odds of ithappening this year are very long and its highly unlikely; but until Dec. 31st I’ll be hoping for it! I’d certainly love to see Eta Carinae explode within my lifetime .. providing we don’t cop any damage which I really don’t think we will. ;-)

    Thanks for posting that image for us, BA – its much appreciated. :-)

  37. Click on my name for a link to James Kaler’s excellent ‘Eta Carinae’ page for more info. Seems he agrees with me about this Luminous Blue Variable and possible brightest star in our Galaxy – saying :

    “ETA CAR (Eta Carinae). “Magnificent;” “Grandest in the Galaxy of stars”; “None like it:” so would go critical reviews were Eta Car a stage actor rather than a star. Hyperbole? Yes there are other stars that are similar, but none that can really claim ascendancy.”

    & noting Eta Carinae could end not merely in a supernova but even produce a hypernova blast instead!

    PS. Happy 445th birthday to Galileo Galilei, discoverer of the Galilean moons of Jupiter (Io, Europa, Ganymede & Callisto), the phases of Venus, sunspots, Lunar craters and more; the original astronomical telescopic observer, improver of the Galilean telescope named in his honour*, improver of the compass, advocate of the Copernican heliocentric theory, “father of Science” itself.

    * Invented though by others – a contentious issue with Hans Lippershey (or Lipperhey spellings vary) being first to patent the design but rivals appearing almostsimultaneously.

  38. Oh, its still 14th over in the States I see.

    Its already midday on the 15th Feb today here in Adelaide, South Australia anyway. ;-)

  39. @ Greg Fish :

    (February 13th, 2009 at 1:13 am)
    “The star in question [Eta Carinae] has the mass of over 100 suns so spewing out just two sun’s worth is only a little more than a cosmic belch. It still retains around 99% of its heft. If stars about 10 times as massive as the Sun, shed a significant percentage of their mass, go out with a bang and collapse into black holes, imagine what a monster ten times that can do.”

    Very true indeed. However, one minor pedantic nit pick though – a * ten * solar mass star which is the lowest mass star to produce a type II supernova would NOT leave a black hole but would produce a neutron star instead. (Okay the boundary is around eight to ten solar masses to be precise.)

    Such a star would begin its life as about spectral type B1~B2 before running through its core hydrogen, swelling up to red supergianthood as a Helium fusing first and then second ascent supergiant. It would then be a red hot vacuum in its outer layers but in its super-dense, super-hot core, the star would fuse elements past just the ordinary helium into carbon, carbon into oxygen. It would “burn” oxygen into neon & magnesium, neon-magnesium into silicon & sulphur and finally sulphur-Silicon into iron …

    .. At which point the nuclear fusion process takes more energy than produces causing the core to implode, the outer layers of the star rebound off it &

    :large fonts

    BBOOOOOOOMMMM!!! :/large:

    We have a new supernova! :-)

    Then a new neutron star for this lower mass high mass star .. Maybe a pulsar or magnetar.

    Or for a *higher* high mass star perhaps a black hole! ;-)

    —-
    PS. Hope the large font size works – how do you get large fonts here?

    Suggestion to the BA – can we have a “how to” list somewhere here with font sizes, image posting, bold, italics emoticons etc .. ? Please?

  40. Talk about pareidolia, I can see several “faces” in the picture. Quick! Hide this before the creationists get hold of it!

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