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Monday, March 8, 2021

Earth is fighting a laser duel with the Carina nebula

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Whoever observes the photograph with the naked eye may think that a cosmic weapon of great power is fired from a planet located in a galaxy far, far away towards us on Earth. Or it may differ that this is a special effect created for a science fiction movie. But nothing is further from this. This shot to the stars is real and comes from Earth.

Among the largest nebulae in the southern night sky, we find the Carina Nebula or also called Eta Carinae, which is a very bright supergiant star. Estimates of its mass range from 100 to 150 times the mass of the Sun, and its luminosity is approximately four million times that of our star. This celestial object is currently the most massive star that can be studied in great detail, due to its location and size. Several other known stars may be brighter and more massive, but the data on them is much less robust.

For several decades, this nebula has been a constant object of visualization by great astronomers who take advantage of the powerful ground-based telescope Very Large Telescope (VLT) of the European Southern Observatory (ESO), administered by the European Space Agency. This huge observatory is responsible for the impressive rays of light that shoot towards this star formation located approximately 7,500 light years from Earth.

According to ESO, scientists fire these lasers from one of the pieces that make up the Very Large Telescope to simulate distant stars (ESO)

In this image released by astronomers, the nebula appears as an impressive pink cloud in the clear sky over ESO’s Paranal Observatory in Chile, home to the VLT. The Carina Nebula is a vast cloud of dust and gas; This gas is ionized and made to shine by the stars within the nebula itself.

The modern adaptive optics facility installed on one of the VLT’s 8.2-meter unit telescopes (UT) is fully operational, sending the orange laser beams from the UTs into the atmosphere where they alter the sodium particles and make them glow. This creates artificial ‘stars’ that are used to measure blurring caused by Earth’s atmosphere, which are then corrected by the telescope.

“Eta Carinae is actually a pair of two giant stars, which have been constantly exploding in a spectacular eruption of gas and dust for almost 200 years and now we are shooting lasers at it, “say the astronomers responsible for the ingenious astronomical trick to look through time and space.

An image of the VLT (Very Large Telescope) of ESO (European Organization for Astronomical Research in the Southern Hemisphere) in Paranal, Chile (ESO)

An innovative observation technique

Seeing this far into space can be tricky, even when viewing one of the brightest objects in our galaxy through one of the most powerful telescopes on Earth as there is always a very annoying common problem: the gaseous atmosphere of the Earth always gets in the way, blurring and distorting the view of celestial objects.

This is where lasers come in. According to ESO, scientists fire these lasers from one of the pieces that make up the Very Large Telescope to simulate distant stars. Sodium particles in the atmosphere make the rays glow orange. Astronomers then focus on these artificial stars to measure how much these rays are blurred by Earth’s atmosphere. By practicing with fake stars, astronomers can more effectively calibrate the telescope to correct for atmospheric blur when looking at real stars, galaxies, and explosive objects like Eta Carinae.

So to sum it up: Earth scientists are actively firing lasers into the heart of an exploding star system, but only so they can get to know it better. In our beautiful Milky Way galaxy, it is simply what can be done so far as a distant neighbor.

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