The star system Eta Carinae is, to date, basically a giant cosmic volcano. Located 7,500 light-years away in the constellation Carina, the system is comprised of two mind-bogglingly massive stars—each millions of times brighter than the Sun—that explosively interact. As a result, the Eta Carinae system is by far the largest and brightest object within 10,000 light years of Earth.
Scientists have long been fascinated by the system’s volatile and ultra-luminous nature, which is why astronomers based out of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center pulled out all the stops with their latest investigation into Eta Carinae. For over a decade, Goddard researchers have been monitoring the monster stars with both space and ground-based telescopes, and using the NASA’s Pleiades supercomputer to model the data.
The result are the most accurate and comprehensive images and video simulations of this epic stellar light show ever created, which the team released Wednesday evening at the 225th American Astronomical Association meeting.
“We are coming to understand the present state and complex environment of this remarkable object,” said astrophysicist Ted Gull, who coordinated the effort, in a NASA statement. “But we have a long way to go to explain Eta Carinae’s past eruptions or to predict its future behavior.”
As the video above explains, the blazing luminosity at the heart of Eta Carinae is the result of the two stars barreling toward their periastron—the point of closest orbit—every five and a half years. Considering that the stars weigh 30 and 90 solar masses respectively, and that they end up about as far from each other as Mars is from the Sun, it’s easy to understand why the system is such a luminous juggernaut. You can’t just chuck giant stars at each other and not expect some fireworks.
Still, the video and the accompanying explanation are worth watching and reading in full, because there are a lot of weird, finer details revealed by the Goddard researchers. From the Fibonacci-like spiral the close encounter creates to the system’s emission of lasers, Eta Carinae continues to be full of surprises.
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