Eta Carinae is one of the most fascinating objects in our galaxy. It is made of two massive stars and 187 years ago (from Earth’s point of view) the system ejected a huge amount of gas creating a bright nebula. This was the "Great Eruption”, which propelled Eta Carinae to temporarily become the second brightest star in the sky. It has become fainter since then but our telescopes have improved massively and thanks to the power of NASA’s suite of space telescopes, you can now see this magnificent celestial body like never before.
In a new visualization created for NASA's Universe of Learning, Eta Carinae and its surrounding Homunculus Nebula are seen at a combination of wavelengths. By going from infrared to X-rays, visual scientists were able to highlight the different regions of the nebula and turn 2D images into a full-3D recreation.
"The team did such an amazing job representing the volumetric layers that viewers can immediately and intuitively comprehend the complex structure around Eta Car," Frank Summers, principal visualization scientist at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) and project lead, said in a statement. "We can not only tell the story of the Great Eruption but also showcase the resulting nebula in 3D."
The data from this come from the Hubble Space Telescope and NASA’s Chandra X-ray observatory that focused on the visible light, ultraviolet light, and x-ray emission from this phenomenal object. The visualization also includes infrared emissions taken from the recently defunct Spitzer telescope. The Homunculus nebula shines brightly in infrared and the glow affects the wider Carina Nebula where this system is located.
"Spitzer's infrared image lets us peer through the dust that obscures our view in visible light to reveal the intricate details and extent of the Carina Nebula around this brilliant star," commented Robert Hurt, lead visualization scientist at Caltech/IPAC and team member.
The visualization is certainly striking in itself but the team stressed that it can be moved beyond the flat computer screens.
"We can take these models like the one for Eta Car and use them in 3D printing and augmented reality programs," noted Kim Arcand, visualization lead scientist at the Chandra X-ray Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts. "This means more people can put their hands on the data – literally and virtually – and this makes for better learning and engagement."
Creating physical representations of astrophysical objects has been done with incredible success by the team at the Tactile Universe, an award-winning group that engages the young visually impaired community with the latest astrophysical research.