July 10, 2014

Researchers at NASA have not only successfully map the entire Eta Carinae Homunculus Nebula for the first time, but also developed a 3D model of the expanding cloud produced by it during its 19th century outburst.

Eta Carinae lies about 7,500 light-years away in the southern constellation of Carina and is one of the most massive binary systems astronomers can study in detail. The smaller star is about 30 times the mass of the sun and may be as much as a million times more luminous. The primary star contains about 90 solar masses and emits 5 million times the sun's energy output.

In the middle of the 19th century, the massive binary system Eta Carinae underwent an eruption that ejected at least 10 times the sun's mass and made it the second-brightest star in the sky.

As a part of this event, which astronomers call the Great Eruption, a gaseous shell was shot into space. This material forms a twin-lobed dust-filled cloud known as the Homunculus Nebula, which is now about a light-year long and continues to expand at more than 1.3 million mph (2.1 million km/h).

Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center

Now a team of astronomers used the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope and its X-Shooter spectrograph to create the first high-resolution 3D model of the Homunculus Nebula, allowing the team to study even dust-obscured portions of the Homunculus that face away from Earth.

The reseachers used a modeling program called Shape to analyze and model the three-dimensional motions and structure of nebula. "Our model indicates that this vast shell of gas and dust has a more complex origin than is generally assumed," said Thomas Madura, a NASA Postdoctoral Program fellow at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and a member of the study team. "For the first time, we see evidence suggesting that intense interactions between the stars in the central binary played a significant role in sculpting the nebula we see today."

Once the researchers had developed their Homunculus model, they took things one step further: they 3D printed themselves a physical model.

"Now anyone with access to a 3-D printer can produce their own version of this incredible object," said Goddard astrophysicist Theodore Gull. "While 3-D-printed models will make a terrific visualization tool for anyone interested in astronomy, I see them as particularly valuable for the blind, who now will be able to compare embossed astronomical images with a scientifically accurate representation of the real thing."


Posted in 3D Printing Applications

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