Observations of a Windy Star

Homunculus Nebula

Hubble view of the Homunculus Nebula surrounding Eta Carinae [NASA Hubble Space Telescope/Jon Morse (University of Colorado)]

The incredibly luminous massive star Eta Carinae has long posed a challenge for astronomers to model. New observations are now in … so were our models correct?

Dramatic Target

The massive evolved star Eta Carinae, located ~7,500 light-years away in the constellation Carina, is the most luminous star in the Milky Way. Eta Carinae has a quite a reputation for drama: it has been very unstable in the past, exhibiting repeated eruptions that have created the spectacular Homunculus Nebula surrounding it. Its present-day wind has the highest mass-loss rate of any hot star we’ve observed.

Picture of Stellar Wind

Eta Carinae

Top panel: February 2017 observations of Eta Carinae in continuum (left) and H-alpha. Middle panel: the normalized radial profile for H-alpha and continuum emission. Bottom panel: the full width at half maximum for H-alpha and continuum emission of Eta Carinae. The H-alpha is about 2.5 to 3 milliarcseconds wider than the continuum. [Adapted from Wu et al. 2017]

In our goal to understand the late evolutionary phases of very massive stars, we’ve developed radiative-transfer models to explain the behavior of Eta Carinae. One of the most well-known models, developed by John Hillier and collaborators in 2001, describes Eta Carinae’s mass loss via stellar winds. With the right observations, this model is testable, since it predicts observable locations for different types of emission. In particular, one prediction of the Hillier et al. model is that the dense, ionized winds surrounding the star should emit in H-alpha at distances between 6 and 60 AU, with a peak around 20 AU.

This nicely testable hypothesis is rendered less convenient by the fact that it’s hard to get resolved images of Eta Carinae’s H-alpha emission. Its distance from us — and the fact that it’s shrouded in the complex nebula it created — have thus far prevented us from resolving the H-alpha emission from this star. Now, however, a team of scientists from Steward Observatory, University of Arizona have changed this.

Confirming the Model

Led by Ya-Lin Wu, the team obtained diffraction-limited images of Eta Carinae using the Magellan adaptive optics system. The observations, made in both H-alpha and continuum, show that the H-alpha emitting region is significantly wider than the continuum emitting region, as predicted by the model. In fact, the measured emission implies that the H-alpha line-forming region may have a characteristic emitting radius of ~25–30 AU — in very good agreement with the Hillier et al. stellar-wind model.

This confirmation is strong support of the physical wind parameters estimated for Eta Carinae in the model, like the mass-loss rate of 10^-3 solar masses per year. These parameters are enormously helpful as we attempt to understand the physics of strong stellar-wind mass loss and the late evolutionary phases of very massive stars.


Ya-Lin Wu et al 2017 ApJL 841 L7. doi:10.3847/2041-8213/aa70ed