NASA’s STEREO Spots a New Nova

by Jason Major on May 1, 2012

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While on duty observing the Sun from its position in solar orbit, NASA’s STEREO-B spacecraft captured the sudden appearance of a distant bright object. This flare-up turned out to be a nova — designated Sagittarii 2012 — the violent expulsion of material and radiation from a re-igniting white dwarf star.

Unlike a supernova, which is the cataclysmic collapse and explosion of a massive star whose core has finally fused its last, a nova is the result of material falling onto the surface of a white dwarf that’s part of a binary pair. The material, typically hydrogen and helium gas, is drawn off the white dwarf’s partner which has expanded into a red giant.

Eventually the white dwarf cannot contain all of the material that it has sucked in from its neighbor… material which has been heated to tremendous temperatures on its surface as it got compressed further and further by the white dwarf’s incredibly strong gravity. Fusion occurs on the dwarf’s outermost layers, blasting its surface out into space in an explosion of light and energy.

This is a nova — so called because, when witnessed in the night sky, one could suddenly appear as a “new star” in the heavens — sometimes even outshining all other visible stars!

An individual nova will soon fade, but a white dwarf can produce many such flares over time. It all depends on how rapidly it’s accreting material (and how much there is available.)

Over the course of 4 days, Sagittarii 2012 reached a magnitude of about 8.5… still too dim to be seen with the unaided eye, but STEREO-B was able to detect it with its SECCHI (Sun Earth Connection Coronal and Heliospheric Investigation) instrument, which is sensitive to extreme ultraviolet wavelengths.

The video above was made from images acquired from April 20 – 24, 2012.

It’s not known yet how far away Sagittarii 2012 is but rest assured it poses no threat to Earth. The energy expelled by a nova is nowhere near that of a supernova, and although you wouldn’t want to have a front-row seat to such an event we’re well away from the danger zone.

What this does show is that STEREO-B is not only a super Sun-watching sentinel, but also very good at observing much more distant stars as well!

Thanks to @SungrazerComets for the heads-up on this novel nova!

STEREO-B image of Sagittarii 2012 (STEREO/SECCHI/NASA/NRL)

 

About 

A graphic designer in Rhode Island, Jason writes about space exploration on his blog Lights In The Dark, Discovery News, and, of course, here on Universe Today. Ad astra!

ozonator May 1, 2012 at 6:37 AM

The Nova must be a AGW hoax as extremist Republicans and Christians failed to predict even cloud 9 after predicting their usual free lunch.

“British astrophysicist Piers Corbyn explains why severe weather occurs … are caused by a mingling of solar-magnetic factors and lunar factors … Corbyn is a brilliant astrophysicist. … solar-magnetic factors (such as sunspots) … magnetic disturbances on the sun and cloud-creating cosmic rays … AGW theorists can’t explain … The authors get royalties from gas wells and own stock in companies that are involved with oil and natural gas development” (“Does global warming cause extreme weather?”; By Howard Richman & Raymond Richman, EssoKoch’s spare Neuticles; corporate “ho’ farm team of American Stinkers; americanthinker.com, 4/29/12).

Olaf2 May 1, 2012 at 11:16 AM

This has nothing to do with this article.

Brenda Jean Louise May 1, 2012 at 7:15 AM

All I can say is wow!!! A nova view for free when you’re looking at something else.

Stan Taylor May 1, 2012 at 11:39 AM

With the addition of the nova, the area looks like a mini-Orion. Sweet!

Scott Passmore May 1, 2012 at 2:12 PM

Does the Red Giant companion shrug this event off or is it affected in some way?

Jean-Philippe Halain May 1, 2012 at 2:31 PM

Maybe worth to mention that these images are taken in the visible range (630-730 nm for this channel of the SECCHI-HI instrument), and not in the EUV…
Jean-Philippe

Skbeam_Stinks May 2, 2012 at 1:28 PM

Wonder how long ago that happened.

Andrew May 2, 2012 at 2:01 PM

How do these even get noticed? Is there an alarm that goes off or they just got lucky and happened to see it?

krenshala May 2, 2012 at 6:42 PM

Most likely someone was reviewing the video footage from STEREO and noticed the change. Like most such discoveries. ;)

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