Superstar Eta Carinae

  • Released Thursday, October 1st, 2015
  • Updated Wednesday, May 3rd, 2023 at 1:49PM

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. 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. During the past 11 years, astronomers at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center have 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. Scientists will use information from the model to further explore the system's inner workings and unravel its tumultuous past. Watch the video to learn more.

Orbit diagram of Eta Carinae. At closest approach, the stars are 140 million miles apart, or about the average distance between Mars and the sun.

Orbit diagram of Eta Carinae. At closest approach, the stars are 140 million miles apart, or about the average distance between Mars and the sun.

Supercomputer simulations reveal the complexity of the stellar wind interaction of Eta Carinae's two stars.

Supercomputer simulations reveal the complexity of the stellar wind interaction of Eta Carinae's two stars.

Eta Carinae's eruption in the 1840s created the Homunculus Nebula (above), an expanding cloud of gas and dust that's now about a light-year long.

Eta Carinae's eruption in the 1840s created the Homunculus Nebula (above), an expanding cloud of gas and dust that's now about a light-year long.

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Credits

Please give credit for this item to:
NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center
Homunculus Nebula image courtesy of NASA/ESA/Hubble SM4 ERO Team