CO, Water, and Tentative Methanol in η Carinae Approaching Periastron

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Astrophysical Journal Letters








The complex circumstellar environment around the massive binary and luminous blue variable η Carinae is known to harbor numerous light molecules, emitting most strongly in rotational states with upper level energies to ∼300 K. In circumstellar gas, the complex organic molecule methanol (CH3OH) has been found almost exclusively around young stellar objects, and thus regarded as a signpost of recent star formation. Here we report the first potential detection of methanol around a highly evolved high-mass star, while using the Atacama Large Millimeter Array to investigate molecular cloud conditions traced by CO (2-1) in an orbit phase preceding the 2020 periastron. The methanol emission originates from hot (T gas ≃ 700 K) material, ∼2″ (0.02 pc) across, centered on the dust-obscured binary, and is accompanied by prominent absorption of continuum radiation in a cooler (T gas ≃ 110 K) layer of gas. We also report a first detection of water in Herschel observations at 557 and 988 GHz. The methanol abundance is several to 50 times higher than observed toward several lower-mass stars, while water abundances are similar to those observed in cool, dense molecular clouds. The very high methanol:water abundance ratio in the core of η Car may suggest methanol formation processes similar to Fischer-Tropsch-type catalytic reactions on dust grains. These observations prove that complex molecule formation can occur in a chemically evolved massive stellar environment, given sufficient gas densities and shielding conditions as may occur in material around massive interacting companions and merger remnants.


Physics and Astronomy