Discovery of a massive equatorial torus in the η Carinae stellar system

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The enigmatic object η Carinae is believed to represent an important, but short-lived, unstable phase in the life of the most massive stars, occurring shortly before they explode as supernovae or collapse directly to black holes. The putative binary1,2 system believed to constitute η Carinae survived an outburst in the previous century that lasted 20 years; and which created a nebula with pronounced bipolar lobes that together contain about 2.5 solar masses of material. The nebula also exhibits an equatorial ‘waist’ containing about 0.5 solar masses3. The physical mechanisms responsible for the outburst and the bipolar geometry are not understood. Here we report infrared observations (spectroscopy and imaging) that reveal the presence of about 15 solar masses of material, located in an equatorial torus. The massive torus may have been created through highly non-conservative mass transfer, which removed the entire envelope of one of the stars, leaving an unstable core that erupted in the nineteenth century. The collision of the erupted material with the pre-existing torus provides a natural explanation for the bipolar shape of the nebula.

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Figure 1: Infrared spectrum of η Car. η Car was observed with the short wavelength spectrometer (SWS)21 and the long wavelength spectrometer (LWS)22 on board the Infrared Space Observatory (ISO)18.
Figure 2: False-colour image of η Car at 17 µm wavelength.


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We appreciate the use of the composite HST images constructed by J. Morse. We also thank E. Lellouch for assistance with calibrations pertaining to Uranus, I. Yamamura for discussions, and S. F. Moseley for access to the recent unpublished KAO photometry of η Car. This work was supported in part by a Pioneer grant to L.B.F.M.W. and a NWO Spinoza grant to E.P.J. van den Heuvel. This work is partly based on observations with ISO, an ESA project with instruments funded by ESA member states and with the participation of ISAS and NASA. It also involves observations obtained at the European Southern Observatory, La Silla, Chile.

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Correspondence to P. W. Morris.

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Morris, P., Waters, L., Barlow, M. et al. Discovery of a massive equatorial torus in the η Carinae stellar system. Nature 402, 502–504 (1999) doi:10.1038/990048

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