Eta Carinae
© NASA, ESA, N. Smith (University of Arizona, Tucson), and J. Morse (BoldlyGo Institute, New York)
If you were to have looked up at the sky 181 years ago you'd have noticed one seemingly new and incredibly bright star burning up the heavens during an event known as The Great Eruption of 1838. The Great Eruption occurred in the constellation Carina when Eta Carinae, a two-star system, formed a nebula so massive that, for a time, it was bright enough for Mariners to navigate by.

Although the Great Eruption has long since faded from the view of the naked human eye, its tumultuous explosion is still going on and is quite visible to the Hubble telescope, which recently returned a stunning image of the moribund binary system.

The image was captured by the space telescope's Wide Field Camera 3 and mapped magnesium gas escaping in ultraviolet light (which shows up as blue in the photograph) around the hourglass-shaped nebula's perimeter. "The pattern of light and shadow is reminiscent of sunbeams that we see in our atmosphere when sunlight streams past the edge of a cloud," said team memver Jon Morse of BoldlyGo Institute in New York, "though the physical mechanism creating Eta Carinae's light is different."

The Great Eruption is far from over, at least as far as humans are concerned: scientists are certain that Eta Carinae will eventually become a supernova even brighter than the initial burst seen in 1838. In fact, that may have already happened. With Eta Carinae 7,500 light years away, however, it may be a while before anyone on Earth sees it.