Context. Massive stars shape their surrounding medium through the force of their stellar winds, which collide with the circumstellar medium. Because the characteristics of these stellar winds vary over the course of the evolution of the star, the circumstellar matter becomes a reflection of the stellar evolution and can be used to determine the characteristics of the progenitor star. In particular, whenever a fast wind phase follows a slow wind phase, the fast wind sweeps up its predecessor in a shell, which is observed as a circumstellar nebula.
Aims. We make 2D and 3D numerical simulations of fast stellar winds sweeping up their slow predecessors to investigate whether numerical models of these shells have to be 3D, or whether 2D models are sufficient to reproduce the shells correctly.
Methods. We use the MPI-AMRVAC code, using hydrodynamics with optically thin radiative losses included, to make numerical models of circumstellar shells around massive stars in 2D and 3D and compare the results. We focus on those situations where a fast Wolf-Rayet star wind sweeps up the slower wind emitted by its predecessor, being either a red supergiant or a luminous blue variable.
Results. As the fast Wolf-Rayet wind expands, it creates a dense shell of swept up material that expands outward, driven by the high pressure of the shocked Wolf-Rayet wind. These shells are subject to a fair variety of hydrodynamic-radiative instabilities. If the Wolf-Rayet wind is expanding into the wind of a luminous blue variable phase, the instabilities will tend to form a fairly small-scale,
regular filamentary lattice with thin filaments connecting knotty features. If the Wolf-Rayet wind is sweeping up a red supergiant wind, the instabilities will form larger interconnected structures with less regularity. The numerical resolution must be high enough to resolve the compressed, swept-up shell and the evolving instabilities, which otherwise may not even form.
Conclusions. Our results show that 3D models, when translated to observed morphologies, give realistic results that can be compared directly to observations. The 3D structure of the nebula will help to distinguish different progenitor scenarios.