The Eta Carinae binary star system erupted twice in the 19th century, creating a stunning and rapidly expanding debris cloud. Now, for the first time ever, NASA has peered past the dusty clouds to catch a glimpse of its interior.
The system is located about 7,500 light-years from Earth, and it comprises two massive stars whose wild orbits bring them excruciatingly close every 5.5 years in an event called a periastron. When this happens, the stars come within 140 million miles (225 million kilometers) of each other, which is the average distance between the Sun and Mars. In the time immediately before this recurring event, the system emits X-ray flares, followed by a sudden decline and recovery of X-ray emissions. In addition, structures near the stars disappear and reappear at specific wavelengths of light, even casting shadows as the smaller star swings around its larger partner.
Because the periastron results in a flurry of activity, it provides scientists with a unique opportunity to study the mysterious object.
In the computer simulation above, Eta Carinae's two stars can be seen as black dots. The light colors represent greater densities in the stellar winds churned out by each star. At the closet approach, the rapid winds of the smaller star carves a tunnel in the thicker wind of the bigger star. Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center/T. Madura
Now, using satellites, ground-based telescopes, and theoretical models, NASA scientists have produced the most comprehensive picture of Eta Carinae to date. This NASA video highlights the new visualizations and 3D models that were produced as a result of the new research.
The new visualizations show features never seen before owing to the obstructive debris field, including shells of ionized gas speeding away from the large star at one million miles an hour — and finger-like fiery projections that came as a complete surprise to the researchers.