Hubble celebrates 31st birthday with giant star on the edge of destruction
Credit: NASA, ESA and STScI
The giant star featured in this latest Hubble Space Telescope anniversary image is waging a tug-of-war between gravity and radiation to avoid self-destruction. The star, called AG Carinae, is surrounded by an expanding shell of gas and dust — a nebula — that is shaped by the powerful winds of the star. The nebula is about five light-years wide, which equals the distance from here to our nearest star, Alpha Centauri.
The huge structure was created from one or more giant eruptions several thousand years ago. The star’s outer layers were blown into space, the expelled material amounting to roughly 10 times the mass of our Sun. These outbursts are typical in the life of a rare breed of star called a Luminous Blue Variable (LBV), a brief unstable phase in the short life of an ultra-bright, glamorous star that lives fast and dies young. These stars are among the most massive and brightest stars known. They live for only a few million years, compared to the roughly 10-billion-year lifetime of our own Sun. AG Carinae is a few million years old and resides 20 000 light-years away inside our Milky Way galaxy. The star’s expected lifetime is between 5 million and 6 million years.
LBVs have a dual personality. They appear to spend years in semi-quiescent bliss and then they erupt in a petulant outburst, during which their luminosity increases — sometimes by several orders of magnitude. These behemoths are stars in the extreme, far different from normal stars like our Sun. In fact AG Carinae is estimated to be up to 70 times more massive than our Sun and shines with the blinding brilliance of 1 million suns.
Major outbursts such as the one that produced the nebula featured in this image occur a few times during a LBV’s lifetime. A LBV star only casts off material when it is in danger of self-destruction. Because of their massive forms and super-hot temperatures, luminous blue variable stars like AG Carinae are in a constant battle to maintain stability. It’s an arm-wrestling contest between radiation pressure from within the star pushing outward and gravity pressing inward. This arm-wrestling match results in the star’s expanding and contracting. The outward pressure occasionally wins the battle, and the star expands to such an immense size that it blows off its outer layers, like a volcano erupting. But this outburst only happens when the star is on the verge of coming apart. After the star ejects the material, it contracts to its normal (large) size, settles back down, and becomes stable again.
LBV stars are rare: fewer than 50 are known among the galaxies in our local group of neighbouring galaxies. These stars spend tens of thousands of years in this phase, a blink of an eye in cosmic time. Some are expected to end their lives in titanic supernova blasts, which enrich the Universe with the heavier elements beyond iron.
Like many other LBVs, AG Carinae remains unstable. It has experienced lesser outbursts that have not been as powerful as the one that created the present nebula. Although AG Carinae is semi-quiescient now, its searing radiation and powerful stellar wind (streams of charged particles) have been shaping the ancient nebula, sculpting intricate structures as outflowing gas slams into the slower-moving outer nebula. The wind is travelling at up to 1 million kilometres per hour, about 10 times faster than the expanding nebula. Over time, the hot wind catches up with the cooler expelled material, ploughs into it, and pushes it farther away from the star. This “snowplough” effect has cleared a cavity around the star.
The red material is glowing hydrogen gas laced with nitrogen gas. The diffuse red material at upper left pinpoints where the wind has broken through a tenuous region of material and swept it into space. The most prominent features, highlighted in blue, are filamentary structures shaped like tadpoles and lopsided bubbles. These structures are dust clumps illuminated by the star’s light. The tadpole-shaped features, most prominent at left and bottom, are denser dust clumps that have been sculpted by the stellar wind. Hubble’s sharp vision reveals these delicate-looking structures in great detail.
The image was taken in visible and ultraviolet light. Hubble is ideally suited for observations in ultraviolet light because this wavelength range can only be viewed from space.
The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international cooperation between ESA and NASA.
Each year in the month of April, ESA/Hubble uses the telescope’s anniversary as an opportunity to develop special initiatives to engage and involve the public in this annual milestone. You can explore all of the ESA/Hubble 31st Anniversary initiatives that have been and will be announced here: ESAHubble.org/Hubble31. You can engage with ESA/Hubble’s 31st anniversary activities on social media using #Hubble31.
The observations were conducted as part of the Hubble observing program 16434 (PI: Christopher Britt). They were taken with Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 UVIS channel.
As Hubble celebrates it’s 31st year of operations, below are some captivating facts about the famous observatory’s achievements and impact:
Launched on 24 April 1990, the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has made more than 1.5 million observations of about 48 000 celestial objects.
In its 31-year lifetime, the telescope has racked up more than 181 000 orbits around our planet, totaling over 7.2 billion kilometres.
Hubble observations have produced more than 169 terabytes of data, which are available to present and future generations of researchers.
Astronomers using Hubble data have published more than 18 000 scientific papers, with more than 900 of those papers published in 2020.