A new long-term study of Eta Carinae—"the most luminous and massive star within 10,000 light-years"—has revealed amazing, never-before-seen features using data captured by multiple observatories during 11 years using multiple observatories, including the Swift and the Hubble.
Located about 7,500 light-years away in the southern constellation of Carina, Eta Carinae comprises two massive stars whose eccentric orbits bring them unusually close every 5.5 years. [...] Astronomers have established that the brighter, cooler primary star has about 90 times the mass of the sun and outshines it by 5 million times. While the properties of its smaller, hotter companion are more contested, Goddard's Ted Gull and his colleagues think the star has about 30 solar masses and emits a million times the sun's light.
During the past 11 years, spanning three periastron passages [when the stars are closest, about 140 million miles (225 million kilometers) away], the Goddard group has developed a model based on routine observations of the stars using ground-based telescopes and multiple NASA satellites. According to this model, the interaction of the two stellar winds accounts for many of the periodic changes observed in the system. The winds from each star have markedly different properties: thick and slow for the primary, lean and fast for the hotter companion. The primary's wind blows at nearly 1 million mph and is especially dense, carrying away the equivalent mass of our sun every thousand years. By contrast, the companion's wind carries off about 100 times less material than the primary's, but it races outward as much as six times faster.