Published: Sat, July 07, 2018
Science | By Michele Flores

Massive Star System Eta Carinae is Shooting Cosmic Rays Towards Earth

Massive Star System Eta Carinae is Shooting Cosmic Rays Towards Earth

Data from NASA's NuSTAR X-ray telescope indicates Eta Carinae, the brightest, most massive star system within 10,000 light years of Earth, is generating high-energy cosmic rays by accelerating electrically charged particles to almost the speed of light that then crash into and energize starlight.

Also, NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space telescope had been previously detecting gamma rays that contained X-rays with greater energy compared to other similarly detected gamma rays.

Some of that energy finds its way to our own Solar System, and for a long time astronomers didn't know exactly where it was coming from.

Using the NuStar telescope, NASA was able to collect data on violent shock waves from colliding winds that result in cosmic rays, some of which have been seen to bounce off the Earth's magnetic field. But because the paths of cosmic rays are scrambled by magnetic fields, tracing their origins is quite hard.

Eta Carinae is located about 7,500 light-years away in the southern constellation of Carina and has already erupted twice in the 19th century, but scientists don't yet have a good explanation for those eruptions.

Eta Carinae, also known as HD 93308 and Hen 3-481, is a pair of massive stars whose eccentric orbits bring them unusually close every 5.5 years.

The stars contain 90 and 30 times the mass of our Sun and pass 225 million kilometers apart at their closest approach. Colliding stellar winds within Eta Carinae, which is surrounded by an hourglass dust nebula, have now been confirmed as a reason for the energy patterns in the region. "Where these winds clash changes during the orbital cycle, which produces a periodic signal in low-energy X-rays", explains study co-author Michael Corcoran, an astrophysicist at Goddard.

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For this study, published in the journal Nature Astronomy, the researchers used data from NASA's NuSTAR space telescope.

The Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope observes a similar change in higher-energy gamma radiation in the general direction of Eta Carinae, but the instrument does not have the resolution to confirm the source.

Hamaguchi and his colleagues turned to NuSTAR space telescope to bridge the gap between low-energy X-ray monitoring and Fermi observations.

Low-energy, or soft, X-rays originate in gas at the interface of colliding stellar winds where temperatures can exceed 40 million degrees Celsius (79 million degrees Fahrenheit). Some of the X-rays boasted energy exceeding 30,000 electron Volts.

Eta Carinae has been a source of mystery and fascination for nearly two centuries.

Some of the superfast electrons, as well as other accelerated particles, must escape the system and perhaps some eventually wander to Earth, where they may be detected as cosmic rays. A few likely reach Earth.

Both the X-rays and the gamma rays can only be coming from a star system that can yield a huge amount of energy produced with interacting electrons, a unique property that can only be attributed to the superstar Eta Carinae. "But until NuSTAR was able to pinpoint the radiation... the origin was mysterious". NuSTAR was developed in partnership with the Danish Technical University and the Italian Space Agency (ASI). Caltech manages JPL for NASA.

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