Desktop Project Part 26: Carina will keelhaul your brain

By Phil Plait | April 20, 2012 6:35 am

[The Desktop Project is my way of forcing myself to write a post about the astronomical images I’ve been saving to my computer’s desktop and then ignoring. I’ve been posting one every day for nearly a month, and this, my friends, is it. The last one. And I saved it for this occasion, because it’s ridiculously awesome. Thanks for bearing with me as I did this bit of housecleaning.]

The constellation Carina is a mess. It represents the keel of a ship, but in the sky it happens to be in the direction of the disk of our galaxy, which is like having a window in a building facing downtown in a busy city. And like an urban center, the Milky Way in that direction is lousy with gas, dust, stars… and much of this is chaotic, disturbed, and, well, messy.

Oh, but what a glorious, glorious mess. Behold! The Carina Nebula!

[Click to ennebulenate, or grab this ridiculously huge 13,000 x 9000 pixel monster version. And yes, you very, very much want to make this bigger.]

Holy wow! I love this image! It’s got it all: stars of every color studding a riotous background of gas, itself glowing red or reflecting blue, silhouetted in great ostentatious sweeps of dust. Shock waves riddle the gas, compressing it here and there in arc, loops, streamers, and filaments.

It’s ridiculous, and spectacular.

The image was taken using the HAWK-1 detector on the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope. This is an infrared picture, using colors outside what the human eye can detect. In the picture, what you see as blue is actually light at 1.25 microns, green at 1.65, and red at 2.2 microns. For comparison, the reddest color the eye can see is about 0.7 microns. Amazingly, in visible light this region is even more chaotic looking.

The Carina Nebula is about 7500 light years away, and is the site of a lot of star formation. Many of the stars being born are very massive, which makes them hot, blue, and frighteningly luminous. See that bright star in the lower left? That’s Eta Carina, one of the most massive stars in the galaxy. To give you an idea of how stupid violent and unstable that star is, in 1843 it erupted in an explosive event that rivaled a supernova. The star held together, barely, but it ejected two lobes of matter that have about as much mass as the Sun. Each. And they’re expanding at 700 km/sec (400 miles per second), fast enough to cross the continental United States in 12 seconds.

And one day Eta Car will explode. It’s too far away to hurt us, but what a sight that’ll be! And even now, just sitting there not exploding, it still shines about 4 million times brighter than the Sun. Four million. If the Earth were as close to Eta Car as we are to the Sun, we’d be vaporized into an ionized memory.

The HAWK-1 image is actually high enough resolution to get a lot of detail. Here’s a collection of nine interesting regions:


[Click to embiggen, or grab this 4500 x 4500 version.]

These are all cool shots, but in the center is something odd: the cluster Trumpler 14, which is such a massive collection of hot stars that their combined light and stellar winds apparently is blowing gas back into that bow shock shape on the lower left. There are something like 2000 stars in that cluster alone, including one monster that has 80 times the mass of the Sun, near the theoretical limit of how big a star can be without tearing itself apart.

My favorite, though, is the picture in the upper left. There are various names for the long, dark globule of dense dust there — some less couth than others — but if you flip it over (like in this picture here, a Hubble image from 2007) it really does look like the nebula is flipping off the Universe.

And honestly, if you were sitting in the middle of all that mess, wouldn’t you?

Credit: ESO/T. Preibisch


Related Posts:

Hubble’s 17th: Chaos, birth, and near-death
ESO unlocks the Keyhole
Hubble celebrates 20 years in space with a jaw-dropper
Eta Car: tick tock, tick tock

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Pretty pictures

Comments (29)

  1. JMW

    There have been some very good pictures in your Desktop project the last 3 weeks, Phil, but you really hit the nebula out of the galaxy with this one. Thank you.

    I publicly call on all astronomers to send more pictures to everyone’s favourite BA.

    Mwa ha ha ha!

  2. pumpkinpie

    What a wonderful image for thx conclusion to your series. I am partial to this one; my daughter Rose Carina is one month old today.

  3. Congratulations pumpkinpie! And that’s a lovely name. :)

  4. Chris

    Toby: “Hey Michael, Phil Plait is finished with his Desktop Project.”
    Michael: http://youtu.be/umDr0mPuyQc

  5. FMCH

    Good ole Eta Carina? I really hope it goes all kablooie in my lifetime. It’s my favorite star. Though, I thought that it was found to be a binary system. Anyone?

  6. Chris

    @6 FMCH
    Since it’s 7500 light years away and it might have only a few hundred years left tops from our perspective, it might have already kablooied and we’re just waiting for the light to reach us.

  7. Great job Phil. I have too hundreds of images in my desktop. This is a goo dway to clean up the desktop. We are waiting for the new series.

    Regards from Brazil!!!

    Sérgio

  8. FMCH

    Chris, I dig it. I’m hoping we get to see it, though living in Florida, I’ll have to watch on the news.

  9. Denver7M

    Phil, Since you are the undisputed god of astronomy I must insist that you alter the universe so that I can view the sky through my 10″ scope and actually see views just like this! No, no, I insist…you Must do it, I have decided. And you must finish by tonight :)

    Signed,
    Dream On You Dolt

  10. Crux Australis

    While you’re at it, My Lord, how about clearing the clouds from around my place in New Zealand, so that my astronomy buddies and I can see *any* stars? :)

  11. BK

    Has the gigantor version been pulled? The link brings me a sub HD image

  12. Another Phil

    That’s been a nice series of images.

    Posted today over on Luminous Landscapes is an excellent article ‘Photography in space’ by Captain Alan Poindexter of the STS-131. I love “The Milky Way from Discovery Flight Deck”.
    http://www.luminous-landscape.com/locations/photography_in_space.shtml

  13. Wilfried

    Phil,

    is it possible to find out if the rotational axis of Eta Carinae points towards earth? I think the star was once mentioned in connection with GRBs.

    Thanks for your outstanding work, no post ever fails to arouse my curiosity and imagination!

  14. Marvellously superluminous image – a great one to end this ‘Desktop project’ series with a bang on, BA. :-)

    Eta Carinae is my all-time favourite star too! Keep trying to imagine a star five million times as bright as our Sun – mind-blowing! :-)

    @6. FMCH :

    Good ole Eta Carina? I really hope it goes all kablooie in my lifetime. It’s my favorite star. Though, I thought that it was found to be a binary system. Anyone?

    Yep. That’s right. :-)

    According to stellar expert Jim Kaler :

    “Changes in the nebular spectrum reveal a 5.6 year period that implies a binary nature. … (snip) … Intriguing evidence arrives from the Homunculus [nebula enshrouding Eta Carinae – ed.], which is rich in nitrogen and carbon, but low in oxygen. Such a composition is expected from a star that has run on the “carbon cycle”, a mode of hydrogen fusion in which carbon is used as a nuclear catalyst. Yet the actual star as seen through the dust ininfrared radiation is not so enriched. The Great Eruption [the 1840s supernova imposter event where it breifly became brighter than Canopus – ed.] may have been produced not by the visible star but by the companion, a star now almost completely hidden by dust and has stripped itself down through a great wind to reveal its nuclear fused innards.”
    – Page 77, Kaler, ‘The Hundred Greatest Stars’, Copernicus Books, 2002.

    Kaler goes on to note that the visible primary hypergiant now has about 80 solar masses and its now invisible companion (probably a Wolf-Rayet type star) has perhaps 60 solar masses with the pair being born witha combined mass around 200 solar masses! (Click on my name here for the Eta Carinae page on Kaler’s superb ‘Stars’ website.)

    There’s more info on Eta Carinae, of course, in a whole heap of other places – many articles and papers have been written on this literally superluimous Milky Way heavyweight as you’d expect.

  15. Messier Tidy Upper

    Trio of very minor nitpicks here that I just couldn’t resist mentioning, sorry BA :

    And one day Eta Car will explode. It’s too far away to hurt us, but what a sight that’ll be!

    So, if Eta Carinae is too far away to hurt us why did you choose it to be the death star in your ‘Death from the Skies’ book, page 103, chapter 4 (Gamma Ray Bursts) , then? Don’t you think it could produce a lethal GRB after all, eh? ;-)

    And even now, just sitting there not exploding, it still shines about 4 million times brighter than the Sun. Four million. If the Earth were as close to Eta Car as we are to the Sun, we’d be vaporized into an ionized memory.

    I thought Eta Carinae boasted five million times the solar luminosity, BA, no?

    Okay, I’m sure this merely a ballpark estimate & there are uncertainties and some rounding up / down involved but that’s certainly what I’ve read – so are you shortchanging Eta Car by a million sunpower here? :-o

    There are something like 2000 stars in that cluster alone, including one monster that has 80 times the mass of the Sun, near the theoretical limit of how big a star can be without tearing itself apart.

    Could be mistaken but don’t I recall reading somewhere of a star that’s wellover a hundred solar masses – a new unlikely stellar “heavyweight” (heavy-mass?) champion at the core of a very large galactic open cluster – R136 A1 or something like that?

    Also weren’t the very first stars ever formed up to even 300 or so solar masses – “cheating” of course, by their exceptionally low metallicity but still? ;-)

    Mind you, as noted already, there are only *very* minor nitpicks in an otherwise spot on and very enjoyable blog post here – I’m certainly not complaining or meaning to give you a hard time here, Phil. Just my inner pedant, really. (&, yes, I’m certainly imperfect and fallible and prone to numerous typos myself.)

  16. The top image is simply stunning! Definitely a favorite!

  17. Jon Hanford

    @#20 MTU:

    “….if Eta Carinae is too far away to hurt us why did you choose it to be the death star in your ‘Death from the Skies’ book, page 103, chapter 4 (Gamma Ray Bursts) , then? Don’t you think it could produce a lethal GRB after all, eh?”

    Although I haven’t read the book…..YET(although it’s on my to do list), I do think the possibility of Eta Carinae producing a GRB ‘jet’ is a very real one. However, due to the rotation axis of Eta Car being inclined ~41 degrees to our line of sight, the intersection of any beamed emission with the Earth seems unlikely. So will Eta Car produce a GRB jet?…maybe. Is the Earth in danger of a GRB jet from Eta Car?…probably not.

    Check out the 2007 paper “Superluminous supernovae: no threat from Eta Carinae” and references therein: http://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/0705/0705.4274.pdf

  18. mary Dallas

    “The heavens declare the glory of God.” Truly!

  19. Phil Rounds

    Kinda makes you glad we live in such an “uninteresting” part or the Cosmos doesn’t it? Or maybe not so uninteresting. Perhaps this is where life is most likely to hang out?

  20. Dori

    Thanks, Phil– I set this image as my desktop wallpaper a few weeks ago. Magnificent, stunning, breathtaking– words just can’t express the glory of this image.

  21. @23. Jon Hanford :

    Yep. That’s pretty much my understanding too.

    I was really just joking with the BA sorta saying in his book that Eta Carinae could be *the* death(from-the skies!) star and then saying here that it doesn’t pose any threat at all and noting that minor inconsistency. ;-)

    But maybe our understanding of the GRB risk Eta Car poses has shifted since the book was written, it’s no huge deal after all – just potentially the end of the world!* ;-)

    Seems various sources differ on exactly how bright – four or five million times – Eta Carinae is too.

    Thanks for the link there. :-)

    ———————————————

    * Mind you, almost certainly NOT the end of the world just the very remotest, slim possibility of it.

  22. Tetzauh

    The universe has finally showed us a glimpse of Jack Kirby’s mind.

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