NASA Releases New Image of 'Cosmic Fireworks' Show That's Been 170 Years in the Making


There are going to be plenty of fireworks this Fourth of July. In honor of the holiday, NASA is adding a bit of their own in the form of some cosmic fireworks.

The source is a double star system named Eta Carinae, located 7,500 light-years away from Earth.

According to NASA, the fireworks have been visible for 170 years now — although, thanks to the Hubble Space Telescope, we now have a thoroughly amazing view of them.

In a post on their website on Monday, NASA said that the display from Eta Carinae “takes the shape of a pair of ballooning lobes of dust and gas and other filaments that were blown out from the petulant star.”

And what a star: At its biggest, the star could have had the heft of over 150 of our suns.

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Discovered in 1677, Eta Carinae became the subject of much scientific speculation during the 1840s when an event called the Great Eruption became visible to those of us on Earth.

During this time, the star was so bright — the second-brightest star in all the sky, in fact — that it was used as a navigational aid by sailors.

“Scientists have long known that the outer material thrown off in the 1840s eruption has been heated by shock waves after crashing into the doomed star’s previously ejected material,” the post read.

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However, while scientists had expected the firework images to show one type of light signature made by magnesium in the Hubble images, “a completely new luminous magnesium structure” was discovered.

“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 the Hubble program, said.

“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 for an already powerful stellar blast.”

Yes, what he said. Actually, this means there’s an entirely new theory behind the Great Eruption: There might have been a third star in the system which caused it.

In this theory, the largest of the three stars within the Eta Carinae system would have “cannibalized” a smaller star, catalyzing the explosion. NASA said that “expanding bipolar lobes of hot gas surrounding the system” support that hypothesis.

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According to CNN, such a collision would have sent 10 times the mass of our own star hurling out into the cosmos. Some of the “fireworks” it created, meanwhile, can look a bit like sunbeams.

Whatever the case, it’s certainly fun to look at:

Smith was excited about the future prospects for using Hubble to explore the star system, noting that the ultraviolet light pictures they had taken — pictures which capture light with shorter wavelengths than visible light — showed something totally different than either visible light pictures or infrared pictures, which capture light with longer wavelengths than visible light.

“We had used Hubble for decades to study Eta Carinae in visible and infrared light, and we thought we had a pretty full accounting of its ejected debris. But this new ultraviolet-light image looks astonishingly different, revealing gas we did not see in other visible-light or infrared images,” Smith said.

“We’re excited by the prospect that this type of ultraviolet magnesium emission may also expose previously hidden gas in other types of objects that eject material, such as protostars or other dying stars. Only Hubble can take these kinds of pictures.”

Smith is rightfully excited about the possibilities of NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope — and we can be excited about the fireworks.

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C. Douglas Golden is a writer who splits his time between the United States and Southeast Asia. Specializing in political commentary and world affairs, he's written for Conservative Tribune and The Western Journal since 2014.
C. Douglas Golden is a writer who splits his time between the United States and Southeast Asia. Specializing in political commentary and world affairs, he's written for Conservative Tribune and The Western Journal since 2014. Aside from politics, he enjoys spending time with his wife, literature (especially British comic novels and modern Japanese lit), indie rock, coffee, Formula One and football (of both American and world varieties).
Morristown, New Jersey
Catholic University of America
Languages Spoken
English, Spanish
Topics of Expertise
American Politics, World Politics, Culture