The star system Eta Carinae sends out the brightest flares yet recorded.
SEATTLE—Armed with a 3-D printer, a supercomputer, and several space telescopes, astronomers have gotten their best look yet at one of the galaxy's biggest, weirdest double star systems.
Surprising new observations of the system, known as Eta Carinae, described Wednesday at the American Astronomical Society's annual winter meeting, include a set of oddly bright flares that might signal a change in the two stars' billowing stellar winds. What's more, 3-D printed simulations show unexpected anatomy within the star system's churning, tempestuous center.
Scientists have kept a close eye on Eta Carinae since the 1840s, when a series of unexpected eruptions briefly transformed it into the brightest star in the southern sky. At any time, the unstable system could explode in a spectacular supernova. (Don't worry—Earth will be fine. But the light show will be unforgettable.)
The new observations don't pin down when Eta Carinae might explode, but they are helping astronomers better understand the turbulent pair.
"It's not only the most massive and luminous object that's close to us, but it's also extremely erratic," says astronomer Michael Corcoran of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, in Greenbelt, Maryland.