NASA Observatories Take an Unprecedented Look into Superstar Eta Carinae
Jan. 5, 2014: Eta Carinae, the most luminous and massive stellar system within 10,000 light-years of Earth, is known for its surprising behavior, erupting twice in the 19th century for reasons scientists still don't understand. A long-term study led by astronomers at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, used NASA satellites, ground-based telescopes and theoretical modeling to produce the most comprehensive picture of Eta Carinae to date. New findings include Hubble Space Telescope images that show decade-old shells of ionized gas racing away from the largest star at a million miles an hour, and new 3-D models that reveal never-before-seen features of the stars' interactions.
"We are coming to understand the present state and complex environment of this remarkable object, but we have a long way to go to explain Eta Carinae's past eruptions or to predict its future behavior," said Goddard astrophysicist Ted Gull, who coordinates a research group that has monitored the star for more than a decade.
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. Both produce powerful gaseous outflows called stellar winds, which enshroud the stars and stymy efforts to directly measure their properties. 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, Gull and his colleagues think the star has about 30 solar masses and emits a million times the sun's light.
Speaking at a press conference at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Seattle on Wednesday, the Goddard researchers discussed recent observations of Eta Carinae and how they fit with the group's current understanding of the system.
At closest approach, or periastron, the stars are 140 million miles (225 million kilometers) apart, or about the average distance between Mars and the sun. Astronomers observe dramatic changes in the system during the months before and after periastron. These include X-ray flares, followed by a sudden decline and eventual recovery of X-ray emission; the disappearance and re-emergence of structures near the stars detected at specific wavelengths of visible light; and even a play of light and shadow as the smaller star swings around the primary.
During the past 11 years, spanning three periastron passages, the Goddard group has developed a model based on routine observations of the stars using ground-based telescopes and multiple NASA satellites. "We used past observations to construct a computer simulation, which helped us predict what we would see during the next cycle, and then we feed new observations back into the model to further refine it," said Thomas Madura, a NASA Postdoctoral Program Fellow at Goddard and a theorist on the Eta Carinae team.
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.
Madura's simulations, which were performed on the Pleiades supercomputer at NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California, reveal the complexity of the wind interaction. When the companion star rapidly swings around the primary, its faster wind carves out a spiral cavity in the dense outflow of the larger star. To better visualize this interaction, Madura converted the computer simulations to 3-D digital models and made solid versions using a consumer-grade 3-D printer. This process revealed lengthy spine-like protrusions in the gas flow along the edges of the cavity, features that hadn't been noticed before.
"We think these structures are real and that they form as a result of instabilities in the flow in the months around closest approach," Madura said. "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." A paper detailing this research has been submitted to the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.
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