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By Lisa Potter, science writer, University of Utah Communications
Adapted from an original release written by Francis Reddy of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, available online here.
A new study using data from NASA’s NuSTAR space telescope suggests that Eta Carinae, the most luminous and massive stellar system within 10,000 light-years, is accelerating particles to high energies — some of which may reach Earth as cosmic rays.
“We know the blast waves of exploded stars can accelerate cosmic ray particles to speeds comparable to that of light, an incredible energy boost,” said Kenji Hamaguchi, an astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and the lead author of the study. “Similar processes must occur in other extreme environments. Our analysis indicates Eta Carinae is one of them.”
Astronomers know that cosmic rays with energies greater than 1 billion electron volts (eV) come to us from beyond our solar system. But because these particles — electrons, protons and atomic nuclei — all carry an electrical charge, they veer off course whenever they encounter magnetic fields. This scrambles their paths and masks their origins.
Eta Carinae, located about 7,500 light-years away in the southern constellation of Carina, is famous for a 19th century outburst that briefly made it the second-brightest star in the sky. This event also ejected a massive hourglass-shaped nebula, but the cause of the eruption remains poorly understood.
The system contains 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 140 million miles (225 million kilometers) apart at their closest approach — about the average distance separating Mars and the sun.
“Both of Eta Carinae’s stars drive powerful outflows called stellar winds,” said team member Michael Corcoran, also at Goddard. “Where these winds clash changes during the orbital cycle, which produces a periodic signal in low-energy X-rays we’ve been tracking for more than two decades.”
NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope also observes a change in gamma rays — light packing far more energy than X-rays — from a source in the direction of Eta Carinae. But Fermi’s vision isn’t as sharp as X-ray telescopes, so astronomers couldn’t confirm the connection.
To bridge the gap between low-energy X-ray monitoring and Fermi observations, Hamaguchi and his colleagues turned to NuSTAR. Launched in 2012, NuSTAR can focus X-rays of much greater energy than any previous telescope. Using both newly taken and archival data, the team examined NuSTAR observations acquired between March 2014 and June 2016, along with lower-energy X-ray observations from the European Space Agency’s XMM-Newton satellite over the same period.
“The key to accurately measuring Eta Carinae’s X-rays and identifying the star system as the gamma-ray source — and thus proving that the colliding winds of this binary system are accelerating cosmic rays — was to fully characterize NuSTAR’s background,” said coauthor Daniel Wik, assistant professor at the University of Utah.
Wik previously developed a multicomponent background model for the NuSTAR mission, but Eta Carinae’s location in the plane of the Milky Way caused the background of NuSTAR’s nine separate observations to be more complicated than usual. He helped to identify additional sources of background and how to account for them, allowing the link between Eta Carinae X-ray and gamma-ray emission to become clear.
Eta Carinae’s low-energy, or soft, X-rays come from gas at the interface of the colliding stellar winds, where temperatures exceed 70 million degrees Fahrenheit (40 million degrees Celsius). But NuSTAR detects a source emitting X-rays above 30,000 eV, some three times higher than can be explained by shock waves in the colliding winds. For comparison, the energy of visible light ranges from about 2 to 3 eV.
The team’s analysis, presented in a paper published on Monday, July 2, 2018, in Nature Astronomy, shows that these “hard” X-rays vary with the binary orbital period and show a similar pattern of energy output as the gamma rays observed by Fermi.
The researchers say that the best explanation for both the hard X-ray and the gamma-ray emission is electrons accelerated in violent shock waves along the boundary of the colliding stellar winds. The X-rays detected by NuSTAR and the gamma rays detected by Fermi arise from starlight given a huge energy boost by interactions with these electrons.
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.
“We’ve known for some time that the region around Eta Carinae is the source of energetic emission in high-energy X-rays and gamma rays,” said Fiona Harrison, the principal investigator of NuSTAR and a professor of astronomy at Caltech in Pasadena, California. “But until NuSTAR was able to pinpoint the radiation, show it comes from the binary and study its properties in detail, the origin was mysterious.”
NuSTAR is a Small Explorer mission led by Caltech and managed by JPL for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. NuSTAR was developed in partnership with the Danish Technical University and the Italian Space Agency (ASI). The spacecraft was built by Orbital Sciences Corp., Dulles, Virginia. NuSTAR’s mission operations center is at UC Berkeley, and the official data archive is at NASA’s High Energy Astrophysics Science Archive Research Center. ASI provides the mission’s ground station and a mirror archive. Caltech manages JPL for NASA.
Feature image credit: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble SM4 ERO Team
Caption: Eta Carinae’s great eruption in the 1840s created the billowing Homunculus Nebula, imaged here by Hubble. Now about a light-year long, the expanding cloud contains enough material to make at least 10 copies of our sun. Astronomers cannot yet explain what caused this eruption.