3Eta Carinae is a luminous, huge star system about 7,500 light years from our Sun. The system is known to be erratic, producing unexpected and sometimes inexplicable galactic events–especially perplexing prior to the discovery that Eta Carinae is actually at least two stars in a close binary system. Still, some have predicted that the ultimate demise of Eta Carinae could be spectacular enough to doom the Earth in a great supernova.

Eta Carinae, that enigmatic stellar system, has long been studied, with an effort by NASA astronomers at Goddard Space Flight Center utilizing high-tech satellites, telescopes (including the famous Hubble Space Telescope as well as ground-based telescopes), and theoretical modeling in order to closely examine the system.

Goddard astrophysicist Ted Gull, who’s spent the last decade coordinating a research group monitoring the star system, says that though his team is beginning to understand the present state and environment of the complex object, they have “a long way to go to explain Eta Carinae’s past eruptions” or to make reasonable predictions about its future behavior.

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Each of the stars in the Eta Carinae binary system produces intense stellar winds, which interfere with imaging efforts. From what these scientists can tell, the primary star–larger, brighter, and cooler than its counterpart–has perhaps 90 times the mass of our Sun, and shining some 5 million times brighter. Its companion star, both smaller and burning hotter, has proven more difficult to measure, though it is potentially around 30 times the mass of our Sun and about 1 million times as bright.

Thomas Madura of the Goddard Space Flight Center

Thomas Madura of the Goddard Space Flight Center

And Gull and his colleagues now know more about Eta Carinae thanks in part to 3D printing technology. Thomas Madura of the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center used 3D simulations to record the data of various phenomena related to the stars and then WhiteClouds used that data to produce a physical model of the orbit–and its attendant shockwave–to produce a novel view of the internal structure of the system.

“Compared to standard 3D visualizations, the 3D prints provide more insights into what is going on in the stellar binary system,” Madura says. “The ability to hold and inspect the 3D printed models provides a new perspective on the wind-wind interaction region’s geometry and an improved sense of the scale of the different structures.”

WhiteClouds printed the full-color model on a 3D Systems ProJet 600Pro using a gypsum-based powder and liquid binding agent.

“I do think that this technology and 3D models like this will be used more in the future. Especially as the analysis of 3D (and higher D) data becomes more important in the field of astronomy,” Madura says. “We are currently looking into 3D printing (some) 3D spectral mapping data of Eta Carinae obtained with the Hubble Space Telescope, which would be another first.”

Madura says he’s certain that the 3D models will aid scientists in their investigations and help the general public better understand the interactions and beauty of these baffling galactic objects.

What do you think of these models 3D printed by NASA and Whiteclouds? Let us know in the Eta Carinae 3D Printed forum thread on 3DPB.com.

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