NASA’s Hubble Captures Celestial Fireworks as Eta Carinae Explodes Ahead of Independence Day

By Tiffany Meier

NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope has captured images of a binary star 7,500 light-years away, Eta Carinae, exploding in fiery red, white, and blue—ahead of Independence Day.

“Imagine slow-motion fireworks that started exploding 170 years ago and are still continuing,” the agency wrote on its website on July 1.

Eta Carinae, first recorded by English astronomer Edmond Halley in 1677, went through a massive explosion known as the Great Eruption in 1838, according to Sci News. With its bigger star at 150 times the mass of our sun, the light from the explosion was so colossal that Eta Carinae became the second brightest star in 1844, and was even used as a navigation tool by sailors for several years, according to NASA.

While the light has since faded from human sight, the star is still going through fiery explosions.

NASA and the Hubble Space Telescope released new images on Monday, July 1, revealing never-before-seen details.

“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 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,” he continued.

The new information is important as it will enable astronomers to better understand what triggered the star’s eruption in the first place.

Eta Carinae has a destructive past, having sent pieces of itself into space before. Of the two stars in its system, one is a gigantic star that approaching the end of its lifespan, which makes it exceedingly unstable.

One new theory about the binary star system is that originally it had three stars and the Great Eruption occurred when the biggest star ate one of the other stars, resulting in a mass ten times that of our sun firing off into the stratosphere.

Such fiery explosions in space leave behind traces. In the case of Eta Carinae, what was left behind was a giant mass of gas and dust in the shape of fireworks.

Streaks of light in the image fan out much like sunbeams filtering through clouds on Earth.

“The pattern of light and shadow is reminiscent of sunbeams that we see in our atmosphere when sunlight streams past the edge of a cloud, though the physical mechanism creating Eta Carinae’s light is different,” team member Jon Morse of BoldlyGo Institute in New York said in a statement.

While the “fireworks” have been going on for almost two centuries, the finale will occur when the system completely explodes into a supernova that will far outshine the Great Eruption.

However, since the star system is thousands of light years away, astronomers aren’t able to tell if the explosion has already happened, as it will take 7,500 light years for that light to reach Earth.