Wednesday, January 06, 2016

NASA's Spitzer, Hubble Find "Twins" of Superstar Eta Carinae in Other Galaxies

Eta Carinae's great eruption in the 1840s created the billowing Homunculus Nebula, imaged here by Hubble, and transformed the binary into a unique object in our galaxy. Astronomers cannot yet explain what caused this eruption. The discovery of likely Eta Carinae twins in other galaxies will help scientists better understand this brief phase in the life of a massive star. Credits: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble SM4 ERO Team.

The nearby spiral galaxy M83 is currently the only one known to host two potential Eta Carinae twins. This composite of images from the Hubble Space Telescope's Wide Field Camera 3 instrument shows a galaxy ablaze with newly formed stars. A high rate of star formation increases the chances of finding massive stars that have recently undergone an Eta Carinae-like outburst. Bottom: Insets zoom into Hubble data to show the locations of M83's Eta twins. Credits: NASA, ESA, the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA) and R. Khan (GSFC and ORAU). Hi-res image

In a follow-on survey in 2015, the team found two candidate Eta twins in the galaxy M83, located 15 million light-years away, and one each in NGC 6946, M101 and M51, located between 18 and 26 million light-years away. These five objects mimic the optical and infrared properties of Eta Carinae, indicating that each very likely contains a high mass star buried in five to 10 solar masses of gas and dust. Further study will let astronomers more precisely determine their physical properties. The findings were published in the Dec. 20 edition of The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Researchers found likely Eta twins in four galaxies by comparing the infrared and optical brightness of each candidate source. Infrared images from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope revealed the presence of warm dust surrounding the stars. Comparing this information with the brightness of each source at optical and near-infrared wavelengths as measured by instruments on Hubble, the team was able to identify candidate Eta Carinae-like objects. Top: 3.6-micron images of candidate Eta twins from Spitzer's IRAC instrument. Bottom: 800-nanometer images of the same sources from various Hubble instruments. Credits: NASA, ESA, and R. Khan (GSFC and ORAU)

NASA's James Webb Space Telescope, set to launch in late 2018, carries an instrument ideally suited for further study of these stars. The Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) has 10 times the angular resolution of instruments aboard Spitzer and is most sensitive at the wavelengths where Eta twins shine brightest. 

"Combined with Webb's larger primary mirror, MIRI will enable astronomers to better study these rare stellar laboratories and to find additional sources in this fascinating phase of stellar evolution," said Sonneborn, NASA's project scientist for Webb telescope operations. It will take Webb observations to confirm the Eta twins as true relatives of Eta Carinae.

The Spitzer Space Telescope is managed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. The Spitzer Science Center at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena conducts science operations. 

The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international cooperation between NASA and the European Space Agency. NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center manages the telescope. The Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, Maryland, conducts Hubble science operations. STScI is operated for NASA by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy in Washington, D.C.

For more information about Spitzer, visit:
For more information about Hubble, visit:

Francis Reddy
NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland