Ancient eruptions of η Carinae: A tale written in proper motions

Megan M. Kiminki, Megan Reiter, Nathan Smith

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

37 Scopus citations


We analyse eight epochs of Hubble Space Telescope Hα+[N ii] imaging of η Carinae's outer ejecta. Proper motions of nearly 800 knots reveal that the detected ejecta are divided into three apparent age groups, dating to around 1250 A.D., to around 1550 A.D., and to during or shortly before the Great Eruption of the 1840s. Ejecta from these groups reside in different locations and provide a firm constraint that η Car experienced multiple major eruptions prior to the nineteenth century. The 1250 and 1550 events did not share the same axisymmetry as the Homunculus; the 1250 event was particularly asymmetric, even one-sided. In addition, the ejecta in the S ridge, which have been associated with the Great Eruption, appear to predate the ejection of the Homunculus by several decades. We detect essentially ballistic expansion across multiple epochs. We find no evidence for large-scale deceleration of the observed knots that could power the soft X-ray shell by ploughing into surrounding material, suggesting that the observed X-rays arise instead from fast, rarefied ejecta from the 1840s overtaking the older dense knots. Early deceleration and subsequent coasting cannot explain the origin of the older outer ejecta - significant episodic mass loss prior to the nineteenth century is required. The time-scale and geometry of the past eruptions provide important constraints for any theoretical physical mechanisms driving η Car's behaviour. Non-repeating mechanisms such as the merger of a close binary in a triple system would require additional complexities to explain the observations.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)845-857
Number of pages13
JournalMonthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society
Issue number1
StatePublished - 2016


  • circumstellar matter
  • stars: individual: η Carinae
  • stars: mass-loss

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Space and Planetary Science


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