By 1844, Eta Carinae was the second brightest star in the sky for more than a decade, second only to Sirius, which is 1,000 times closer to Earth.

By Ian Horswill


Posted on July 4, 2019

The most spectacular fireworks in the world – be it New Year’s Eve in Sydney, Australia, or Bastille Day in Paris, France – can’t compare to what’s out there in space if you keep an eye on the Hubble Space Telescope website.

In the words of NASA: “Imagine slow-motion fireworks that started exploding 170 years ago and are still continuing. This type of firework is not launched into Earth’s atmosphere, but rather into space by a doomed super-massive star, called Eta Carinae, the largest member of a double-star system.”

NASA‘s Hubble Space Telescope captured the above image, which includes ultraviolet light, showing the star’s expanding gases exuberant in red, white and blue. The firework show is beyond our reach – the star is 7,500 light-years away.

“We’ve discovered a large amount of warm gas that was ejected in the Great Eruption but hasn’t yet collided with the other material surrounding Eta Carinae,” Nathan Smith, lead investigator for Hubble at the University of Arizona’s Department of Astronomy and Steward Observatory, said in a statement.

“Most of the emission is located where we expected to find an empty cavity. This extra material is fast, and it ‘ups the ante’ in terms of the total energy of an already powerful stellar blast.”

NASA's Hubble Space Telescope was launched in 1990.
NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope was launched in 1990. Photo: NASA

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Eta Carinae’s spectacular firework show was first spotted in 1838 when it underwent a cataclysmic outburst of energy called the Great Eruption. The actual outburst occured around 7,500 years before that, with the light reaching Earth in 1838, Universe Today stated.

Eta Carinae was the second brightest star in the sky for more than a decade by 1844 – second only to Sirius, which is 1,000 times closer to Earth – and was an important navigation star used by seafarers in the south.

Its brightness has since faded and it’s now barely visible to the naked eye. However, the double star continues to erupt as it essentially blows itself into pieces. The Hubble Space Telescope, launched in 1990, can view its displays in detail.

“The celestial outburst takes the shape of a pair of ballooning lobes of dust and gas and other filaments that were blown out from the petulant star. The star may have initially weighed more than 150 Suns. For decades, astronomers have speculated about whether it is on the brink of total destruction,” NASA said in a statement.

Astronomers have used almost every instrument on Hubble over the past 25 years to study the rambunctious star.