Washington, September 11 : New analysis has revealed that the historic 1843 stellar outburst was in fact, a new type of star explosion that is fainter than a typical supernova and does not destroy the star, and may be common in the universe.
Astronomer Nathan Smith from the University of California (UC), Berkeley, has determined that Eta Carinae's historic 1843 outburst was, in fact, an explosion that produced a fast blast wave similar to, but less energetic than, a real supernova.
Eta Carinae (? Car) is a massive, hot, variable star visible only from the Southern Hemisphere, and is located about 7,500 light years from Earth in a young region of star birth called the Carina Nebula.
It was observed to brighten immensely in 1843, and astronomers now see the resulting cloud of gas and dust, known as the Homunculus nebula, wafting away from the star.
This well-documented event in our own Milky Way Galaxy is probably related to a class of faint stellar explosions in other galaxies recognized in recent years by telescopes searching for extragalactic supernovae.
"There is a class of stellar explosions going off in other galaxies for which we still don't know the cause, but Eta Carinae is the prototype," said Smith, a UC Berkeley postdoctoral fellow.
A faint shell of debris from an earlier explosion is also visible, probably dating from around 1,000 years ago.
Presumably blown off by the star's fierce wind, the shells of gas and dust are moving slowly - at speeds of 650 kilometers per second (1.5 million miles per hour) or less - compared to the blast shell of a supernova.
Smith's recent observations using the international Gemini South 8-meter telescope and the Blanco 4-meter telescope at Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile reveal something new.
Extremely fast filaments of gas moving five times faster than the debris in the Homunculus nebula were propelled away from Eta Carinae in the same event.
The fast speeds in this blast wave could roughly double earlier estimates of the energy released in the 1843 eruption of Eta Carinae, an event that Smith argues was not just a gentle surface eruption driven by the stellar wind, but an actual explosion deep in the star that sent debris hurtling into interstellar space.
In fact, the fast-moving blast wave is now colliding with the slow-moving cloud from the 1,000-year-old eruption and generating X-rays that have been observed by the orbiting Chandra Observatory.
"These observations force us to modify our interpretation of what happened in the 1843 eruption," said Smith.
"Rather than a steady wind blowing off the outer layers, it seems to have been an explosion that started deep inside the star and blasted off its outer layers. It takes a new mechanism to cause explosions like this," he added.