With the help of powerful supercomputers, astronomers have plumbed the depths of one of the Galaxy’s most puzzling stellar systems. A high-resolution simulation reveals what happens when the two bright stars that make up the η Carinae system swoop dramatically past each other every 5.5 years, as they did most recently last August.
η Carinae lies 2,300 parsecs from Earth, in the southern constellation Carina. Astronomers have obsessed over it since the 1840s, when it brightened dramatically in the night sky because of some kind of internal instability that almost ripped it apart. Today the system exhibits smaller outbursts every 5.5 years, when its two stars pass at a distance roughly equal to that between the Sun and Mars.
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