Magazine article Science News

All Eyes on ETA Carinae: A New Spectacle?

Magazine article Science News

All Eyes on ETA Carinae: A New Spectacle?

Article excerpt

One of the most massive, luminous, and unstable stars in the heavens, Eta Carinae has been a showstopper since the 1840s, when astronomers watched this behemoth undergo a giant explosion. A new study suggests that in January the star could put on another stellar light show.

Astronomers are gearing up for what could be the largest campaign of ground-based and space observations ever devoted to a single star. The chances are slim that next month's predicted spectacle will reprise Eta Carinae's bravura performance of 150 years ago, when it hurled into space a pair of ballooning, mirror-image gas clouds. Nevertheless, by taking multiwavelength portraits of Eta Carinae at a time when its X-ray output--and perhaps other emissions--are likely to be at a peak, observers hope to answer such basic questions as whether this hour-glass-shaped object is actually two stars locked in a gravitational embrace.

The data take on added significance because Eta Carinae is one of the most likely stars in our galaxy to explode as a supernova, notes Michael F. Corcoran of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. "When you're studying Eta Carinae, you're studying a star just before it becomes so unstable that it blows itself to bits," he says.

Since early 1996, Corcoran and his colleagues have used a NASA craft, the Rossi X-ray Timing Explorer, to monitor Eta Carinae weekly. They report in the Dec. 11 Nature that radiation from the star exhibits two previously unsuspected patterns. Every 85 days, Eta Carinae undergoes small-scale outbursts at X-ray energies. …

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