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Astronomers are gearing up to observe the next binary fly-by of Eta Carinae’s companion star over the next few weeks.
A binary system, η Carinae has two stars that swing past one another every 5.5 years. The bigger star — some 90 times the mass of the Sun — is incredibly unstable, always seemingly on the verge of blowing up. When the smaller companion star makes its closest approach to the primary star, as is happening now, the interaction between the two triggers violent changes in the high-energy radiation pouring out of the system.
Astronomers are watching the show in the hope of learning what drives this enigmatic system. In the 1840s, η Carinae had a mysterious eruption; in recent decades, it has again brightened unexpectedly. “The star is in an awfully deranged state, and no one knows why,” says Kris Davidson, an astronomer at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.
Eta Carinae is also famous because it was one of the first objects imaged by Hubble after its repair in 1993, and was thus the first stellar explosion ever caught on camera in a visually sharp and clear manner. (See my book The Universe in a Mirror for that fascinating story.)