Unlike geologists and zoologists, astronomers rarely get to hold the subject of their study in their hands. That changed recently when Wolfgang Steffen, an astrophysicist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, using software called "Shape," created a 3D-printed model of the Homunculus Nebula.
That might be all well and good for the astronomers, but what does this mean to you? Well, if you have access to a 3D printer, it means that you can hold the Homunculus in your own hands by printing out the first high-resolution 3D model of the cloud of gas. All you need to do is download the plans that NASA has made publically available, feed them into your 3D-printing software, and play god by watching your very own Homunculus Nebula form before your eyes.
This giant cloud of light, gas, and dust was created in the mid-1800s when a binary star system known as Eta Carinae, located about 7,500 light years away, erupted. It spewed a massive amount of solar material into the universe, earning it the position as the second-brightest star in the sky at the time. One of the stars in the binary system measures about 30 times the mass of our sun and could be up to a million times brighter. And that's just the small one! The larger star could hold 90 of our suns in its borders and puts out 5 million times more energy than our sun.
Previous efforts to study and map the Homunculus Nebula, which is expanding out from the two stars at a rate of 1.3 million miles per hour, used only five slices of the system. To create their 3D model of the giant cloud of gas that now measures one full light year across, the researchers took 92 different slices of it using the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope and its X-Shooter spectrograph. They imaged near-infrared, visible and ultraviolet wavelengths, creating the most complete spectral map ever, according to NASA.
That data was used to create a shape model, which was then 3D printed (and also published by the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society).
"The new shape model confirms several features identified by previous studies," says NASA's statement about the model, "including pronounced holes located at the ends of each lobe and the absence of any extended molecular hydrogen emission from a dust skirt apparent in visible light near the center of the nebula. New features include curious arm-like protrusions emanating from each lobe near the dust skirt; vast, deep trenches curving along each lobe; and irregular divots on the side facing away from Earth."
What the researchers were hoping to find out is if interactions between the two stars in the Eta Carinae system had an effect on the formation of the nebula in which they're contained. The answer seems to be "yes."
"One of the questions we set out to answer with this study is whether the Homunculus contains any imprint of the star's binary nature, since previous efforts to explain its shape have assumed that both lobes were more or less identical and symmetric around their long axis," explained team member Jose Groh, an astronomer at Geneva University in Switzerland. "The new features strongly suggest that interactions between Eta Carinae's stars helped mold the Homunculus."
As you can see in the following video, it kind of looks like two molar teeth stuck together, but it'll definitely be the coolest paperweight in your office!