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Hubble Space Telescope (HST) images show three elliptical rings of fluorescing gas around SN1987A. The progenitor's mass loss history is encoded in this circumstellar structure, and the spatial and temporal variations in the winds' velocity, density, and chemical composition can be derived if the formation of the nebula is understood. Hence, SN1987A's nebula provides a unique opportunity to learn how the outer layers of a massive star were changing during the relatively short, late evolutionary stages preceeding core collapse. A successful model may have applications in a much broader context as well, since the morphology of SN1987A's nebula is not unique. The Crab Nebula, Eta Carina, and a class of planetary nebulae share the same basic geometry -- a double-lobed bubble constricted at the waist by higher density gas in a disk or torus.
We present a direct comparison of the interacting-winds model for the formation of SN1987A's nebula and HST images. New two-dimensional hydrodynamic calculations of the interaction of the fast wind from the blue supergiant progenitor with a slower wind expelled during an earlier red supergiant phase are used to construct emission-measure images. The similarity of the overall morphology of these images and the HST images suggests the interacting-winds model is the likely solution for the origin of the nebula. We demonstrate the remarkable agreement between the time scales in this model and a series of stellar evolution calculations. Further work with the interacting-winds model is needed to establish the physical processes responsible for the extreme flattening inferred for the red supergiant wind and the subtle differences between the images.
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