Skip to main content

Hubble celebrates its 31st birthday with image of a stunning but unstable star

In celebration of the 31st anniversary of the launch of the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers aimed the celebrated observatory at one of the brightest stars seen in our galaxy to capture its beauty. The giant star featured in this latest Hubble Space Telescope anniversary image is waging a tug-of-war between gravity and radiation to avoid self-destruction. The star, called AG Carinae, is surrounded by an expanding shell of gas and dust. The nebula is about five light-years wide, which equals the distance from here to our nearest star, Alpha Centauri.
In celebration of the 31st anniversary of the launch of the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers aimed the celebrated observatory at one of the brightest stars seen in our galaxy to capture its beauty. NASA, ESA and STScI

Today is the 31st anniversary of the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope, and to celebrate researchers have used the telescope to image one of the most famous stars in our galaxy. AG Carinae is one of the most luminous stars in the Milky Way, giving out an amount of light equivalent to 1 million suns. But due to the 20,000 light-years of distance and large amount of dust between it and us, it’s usually too faint to be seen with the naked eye.

The star can be seen with telescopes like Hubble though, and studying it can give information about how extreme stars develop as well as capturing a beautiful image. The image uses data from both the visible light and ultraviolet wavelengths, as looking in the ultraviolet range allows scientists to see the dust structures which surround the star in more detail.

As AG Carinae is so bright, it burns a tremendous amount of fuel and is rather unstable. Hubble scientists describe it as “prone to convulsive fits,” in which it puffs up to a larger than usual size and throws off layers of gas into space.  These eruptions can throw off a huge amount of material, expelling as much as the equivalent to 10 times the mass of the sun. When one of these enormous puffs happened 10,000 years ago, it created the beautiful shell of dust and gas which gives the star its distinctive appearance.

Stars like this don’t last for long, at least in stellar terms — with a lifespan of a few million years — because they burn through their fuel quickly and die young. The convulsive phase of such a very bright star is called a luminous blue variable, and studying these offers the chance to see stars in extreme conditions.

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

Editors' Recommendations

Georgina Torbet
Georgina is the Digital Trends space writer, covering human space exploration, planetary science, and cosmology. She…
Hubble images a pair of galaxies caught in the process of merging
This NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image features Arp 122, a peculiar galaxy that in fact comprises two galaxies – NGC 6040, the tilted, warped spiral galaxy and LEDA 59642, the round, face-on spiral – that are in the midst of a collision.

After last week's image of the week from the Hubble Space Telescope showed a cluster of galaxies that appeared to be very close to each other but actually weren't, this week's image shows two images that are practically on top of each other. The two galaxies shown in the image below, NGC 6040 and LEDA 59642, are so close that they are interacting and have a shared name as a pair, Arp 122.

This NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image features Arp 122, a peculiar galaxy that in fact comprises two galaxies – NGC 6040, the tilted, warped spiral galaxy and LEDA 59642, the round, face-on spiral – that are in the midst of a collision. ESA/Hubble & NASA, J. Dalcanton, Dark Energy Survey/DOE/FNAL/DECam/CTIO/NOIRLab/NSF/AURA Acknowledgement: L. Shatz

Read more
Hubble snaps an image of dark spokes in Saturn’s rings
This photo of Saturn was taken by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope on October 22, 2023, when the ringed planet was approximately 850 million miles from Earth. Hubble's ultra-sharp vision reveals a phenomenon called ring spokes. Saturn's spokes are transient features that rotate along with the rings. Their ghostly appearance only persists for two or three rotations around Saturn. During active periods, freshly-formed spokes continuously add to the pattern.

The Hubble Space Telescope is investigating something strange about the beautiful rings around Saturn. You might picture Saturn's rings as perfectly smooth, but in fact, they have some strange dark spots that appear intermittently. These features, called spokes, look like dusty blots spread over the rings and appear for just a few rotations before disappearing again, with some periods having much more spoke activity than others.

These spokes were first observed over 40 years ago by the Voyager 2 spacecraft, but they continue to be something of a mystery. They seem to be linked to seasons on the planet, which are seven years long, and to the planet's magnetic field. A newly released image taken by Hubble in October this year shows the spokes as dark patches on the rings, observed as part of a program called Hubble's Outer Planets Atmospheres Legacy (OPAL), which tracks them as they move.

Read more
NASA’s Psyche spacecraft sends back its first image of a star field
This illustration, updated as of June 2020, depicts NASA’s Psyche spacecraft.

NASA has shared the first images taken by its Psyche mission, which launched in October to study a strange metal asteroid located in the main belt between Mars and Jupiter. The spacecraft, which is still on its long journey, is expected to make its arrival at the asteroid in 2029 and is currently between the orbits of Earth and Mars. But it is already testing out its instruments by taking a test image using its two cameras and sending it back to Earth, in a process called first light.

The image captured by Psyche's cameras shows a field of stars in the constellation Pisces. It is a mosaic made from the total of 68 images taken by the two cameras, with its first camera Imager A taking images for the left side and its second camera imager B taking images for the right side.

Read more