Light echoes from the plateau in Eta Carinae's Great Eruption reveal a two-stage shock-powered event

Nathan Smith, Jennifer E. Andrews, Armin Rest, Federica B. Bianco, Jose L. Prieto, Tom Matheson, David J. James, R. Chris Smith, Giovanni Maria Strampelli, A. Zenteno

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

52 Scopus citations


We present multi-epoch photometry and spectroscopy of a light echo from η Carinae's 19th century Great Eruption. This echo's light curve shows a steady decline over a decade, sampling the 1850s plateau of the eruption. Spectra show the bulk outflow speed increasing from ∼150 km s-1 at early times, up to ∼600 km s-1 in the plateau. Later phases also develop remarkably broad emission wings indicating mass accelerated to more than 10 000 km s-1. Together with other clues, this provides direct evidence for an explosive ejection. This is accompanied by a transition from a narrow absorption line spectrum to emission lines, often with broad or asymmetric P Cygni profiles. These changes imply that the pre-1845 luminosity spikes are distinct from the 1850s plateau. The key reason for this change may be that shock interaction with circumstellar material (CSM) dominates the plateau. The spectral evolution of η Car closely resembles that of the decade-long eruption of UGC 2773-OT, which had clear signatures of shock interaction. We propose a two-stage scenario for η Car's eruption: (1) a slow outflow in the decades before the eruption, probably driven by binary interaction that produced a dense equatorial outflow, followed by (2) explosive energy injection that drove CSM interaction, powering the plateau and sweeping slower CSM into a fast shell that became the Homunculus. We discuss how this sequence could arise from a stellar merger in a triple system, leaving behind the eccentric binary seen today. This gives a self-consistent scenario that may explain interacting transients across a wide range of initial mass.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1466-1498
Number of pages33
JournalMonthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society
Issue number2
StatePublished - Oct 1 2018


  • circumstellar matter
  • stars: evolution
  • stars: winds, outflows

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Space and Planetary Science


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