Hubble captures incredible image of bright-burning star that ‘lives fast and dies young’

Rob Waugh
·Contributor
·3 min read
The image was released for Hubble's 35th anniversary (Hubble)
The image was released for Hubble's 35th anniversary. (Hubble)

A bright-burning blue star which shines with the brilliance of a million suns has been captured in an incredible new Hubble Space Telescope image.

The star fights a constant life or death battle to contain vast explosions which can rip off its outer layers (and also cause the beautiful halo of gas and dust around it).

The star, called AG Carinae, is a few million years old and resides 20,000 light-years away inside our Milky Way galaxy.

But unlike our sun – which has an expected lifespan of around 10 billion years – AG Carinae ‘lives fast’, hence the beautiful expanding shell of gas and dust surrounding the star.

The shell of gas and dust is five light years wide – equivalent to the distance from here to the nearest star beyond the sun, Proxima Centauri.

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The huge structure was created from one or more giant eruptions about 10,000 years ago.

The star's outer layers were blown into space – like a boiling teapot popping off its lid.

The expelled material amounts to roughly 10 times our sun's mass.

These outbursts are the typical life of a rare breed of star called a luminous blue variable, a brief convulsive phase in the short life of an ultra-bright, glamorous star that lives fast and dies young.

These stars are among the most massive and brightest stars known.

"I like studying these kinds of stars because I am fascinated by their instability. They are doing something weird," said Kerstin Weis, a luminous blue variable expert at Ruhr University in Bochum, Germany.

Major outbursts such as the one that produced the nebula occur once or twice during a luminous blue variable's lifetime.

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A luminous blue variable star only casts off material when it is in danger of self-destruction as a supernova.

Because of their massive forms and super-hot temperatures, luminous blue variable stars like AG Carinae are in a constant battle to maintain stability.

It's an arm wrestling contest between radiation pressure from within the star pushing outward and gravity pressing inward.

This cosmic match results in the star expanding and contracting. The outward pressure occasionally wins the battle, and the star expands to such an immense size that it blows off its outer layers, like a volcano erupting.

But this outburst only happens when the star is on the verge of coming apart.

After the star ejects the material, it contracts to its normal size, settles back down, and becomes quiescent for a while.

Like many other luminous blue variables, AG Carinae remains unstable. It has experienced lesser outbursts that have not been as powerful as the one that created the present nebula.

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