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Superstar System Eta Carinae Yields Stellar Secrets

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A supercomputer simulation shows Eta Carinae's solar winds interacting with one another.
A supercomputer simulation shows Eta Carinae's solar winds interacting with one another.NASA / Goddard Space Flight Center

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One of the brightest and most unusual star systems in our galactic neighborhood, Eta Carinae, is the subject of illuminating new reports from NASA astrophysicists. Eta Carinae is a pair of enormous stars. The primary is 90 times larger than our sun and 5 million times brighter; the secondary not quite as huge but still far more so than our own. The smaller star orbits the larger at great speed, coming within 140 million miles (about the average distance between the sun and Mars) every 5.5 years and producing a burst of X-rays and a complicated interaction of solar wind flows.

Careful scrutiny of this rare and complex star system has produced quite a bit of interesting scholarship and striking imagery. NASA theorist Thomas Madura created maps of the two stars' solar winds interfering with each other with the help of supercomputer simulations, and the resulting videos are as beautiful as they are fascinating.

"I wanted to make 3-D prints of the simulations to better visualize them, which turned out to be far more successful than I ever imagined," he explained in a NASA blog post.

A powerful explosion in the 1840s created the rapidly expanding Homunculus Nebula around the stars, seen here:

The Homunculus Nebula is now about a full light-year across and contains enough mass to make at least 10 copies of our sun.
The Homunculus Nebula is now about a full light-year across and contains enough mass to make at least 10 copies of our sun.NASA / ESA / Hubble SM4 ERO Team

Unfortunately, scientists still don't know why this occurred — but research continues and they hope to learn more when the stars encounter one another again in 2020.

— Devin Coldewey

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