A blast wave from the 1843 eruption of η Carinae

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Very massive stars shed much of their mass in violent precursor eruptions as luminous blue variables (LBVs) before reaching their most likely end as supernovae, but the cause of LBV eruptions is unknown. The nineteenth-century eruption of η Carinae, the prototype of these events, ejected about 12 solar masses at speeds of 650 km s-1, with a kinetic energy of almost 1050 erg (ref. 4). Some faster material with speeds up to 1,000-2,000 km s-1 had previously been reported but its full distribution was unknown. Here I report observations of much faster material with speeds up to 3,500-6,000 km s-1, reaching farther from the star than the fastest material in previous reports. This fast material roughly doubles the kinetic energy of the nineteenth-century event and suggests that it released a blast wave now propagating ahead of the massive ejecta. As a result, η Carinae's outer shell now mimics a low-energy supernova remnant. The eruption has usually been discussed in terms of an extreme wind driven by the star's luminosity, but the fast material reported here indicates that it may have been powered by a deep-seated explosion rivalling a supernova, perhaps triggered by the pulsational pair instability. This may alter interpretations of similar events seen in other galaxies.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)201-203
Number of pages3
Issue number7210
StatePublished - Sep 2008

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