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 — a nebula — that is shaped by the powerful winds of the star. The nebula is about five light-years wide, which equals the distance from here to our nearest star (beyond our own Sun), Alpha Centauri.
The huge structure was created from one or more giant eruptions several thousand years ago. The star’s outer layers were blown into space, the expelled material amounting to roughly 10 times the mass of our Sun. These outbursts are typical in the life of a rare breed of star called a Luminous Blue Variable (LBV), a brief unstable phase in the short life of an ultra-bright, glamorous star that lives fast and dies young. These stars are among the most massive and brightest stars known. They live for only a few million years, compared to the roughly 10-billion-year lifetime of our own Sun. AG Carinae is a few million years old and resides 20 000 light-years away inside our Milky Way galaxy. The star’s expected lifetime is between 5 million and 6 million years.
LBVs have a dual personality. They appear to spend years in semi-quiescent bliss and then they erupt in a petulant outburst, during which their luminosity increases — sometimes by several orders of magnitude. These behemoths are stars in the extreme, far different from normal stars like our Sun. In fact AG Carinae is estimated to be up to 70 times more massive than our Sun and shines with the blinding brilliance of 1 million suns.