Eta Carinae is actually a pair of stars 7.500 light years away from us and is an amazing object because it has a cycle of 5,5 years of continuous changes (very different of other stellar objects with “boring” cycles of hundred of millions of years). Now a team of astronomers has collected a lot of information from many telescopes, included Hubble, to make a new reconstruction of how the double star is supposed to be. And yes, it’s impressive.

Eta Cerinae

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.

The team detailed a few key observations that expose some of the system’s inner workings. For the past three periastron passages, ground-based telescopes in Brazil, Chile, Australia and New Zealand have monitored a single wavelength of blue light emitted by helium atoms that have lost a single electron. According to the model, the helium emission tracks conditions in the primary star’s wind. The Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph (STIS) aboard Hubble captures a different wavelength of blue light emitted by iron atoms that have lost two electrons, which uniquely reveals where gas from the primary star is set aglow by the intense ultraviolet light of its companion. Lastly, X-rays from the system carry information directly from the wind collision zone, where the opposing winds create shock waves that heat the gas to hundreds of millions of degrees.

After NASA astronauts repaired the Hubble Space Telescope’s STIS instrument in 2009, Gull and his collaborators requested to use it to observe Eta Carinae. By separating the stars’ light into a rainbow-like spectrum, STIS reveals the chemical make-up of their environment. But the spectrum also showed wispy structures near the stars that suggested the instrument could be used to map a region close to the binary system in never-before-seen detail.

The resulting images, revealed for the first time on Wednesday, show that the doubly ionized iron emission comes from a complex gaseous structure nearly a tenth of a light-year across, which Gull likens to Maryland blue crab. By stepping through the STIS images, vast shells of gas representing the crab’s “claws” can be seen racing away from the stars with measured speeds of about 1 million mph (1.6 million km/h). With each close approach, a spiral cavity forms in the larger star’s wind and then expands outward along with it, creating the moving shells.