Universe Puzzle No. 10

Last week’s Universe Puzzle was fun to do wasn’t it?

Well, this week’s is number ten (how time flies), which is a good time to get some feedback.

Do you enjoy these puzzles? What do you particularly like? Dislike? Would like to see changed? Would like to see more of? Let me know please! Either in the comments below, or drop me an email.

Once again, this week’s puzzle requires you to cudgel your brains a bit and do some lateral thinking (five minutes spent googling likely won’t be enough). But, as with all Universe Puzzles, this is a puzzle on a “Universal” topic – astronomy and astronomers; space, satellites, missions, and astronauts; planets, moons, telescopes, and so on.

What is brightest pre-telescopic nova?

As in: a nova before telescopes were used to observe the heavens.

UPDATE: Answer has been posted below.

This puzzle was designed to really cudgel your brains!

As several of you noted, the term ‘nova’ has had different meanings through the ages; specifically, it wasn’t until the 20th century that ‘novae’ were distinguished from ‘supernovae’. So in trying to solve the puzzle, do you look for historical ‘novae’ but not ‘supernovae’? Or both?

Then there’s the fact that what might have been called a ‘nova’ in the writings of someone in Europe (writing in a language close to, or derived from, Latin) may have been called something quite different by someone writing in China, or in Arabic … even though they were describing the exact same ‘new star’ in the sky. But then not every ‘guest star’ (a translation of a Chinese term) was a nova.

There’s more: I didn’t say it had to be nova that was recorded; there has been some success these last few years in finding light echos of ancient supernovae and extrapolating back. Perhaps someone has done this and someone determined that there would have been a particularly bright nova in 1234 (say), but because it was near the south celestial pole, it was highly unlikely to have been recorded by anyone (in a form that we could understand today) – no, this is highly unlikely, but you get the point.

Getting a little more imaginative: some GRBs are visible to the unaided eye. However, as they are visible for just a few seconds, tops, they’d likely not be recorded.

And so on.

Now the answer that I had in mind, taking all the above (and more; SGRs, Cataclysmic Variables, Dwarf Novae, Recurrent Novae, …) in account was SN1006, which is the historical (super)nova that is both reliable and has the highest estimated peak brightness.

Hon. Salacious B. Crumb , congratulations! You get an extra prize for looking into the known SNR (supernova remnants) to see if any had an estimated peak brightness greater than that of SN1006.

And of course “there’s no way to know” is, perhaps, the best answer of all!

Check back next week for another Universe Puzzle!

12 Replies to “Universe Puzzle No. 10”

  1. SN 1572 – when it was discovered (1572 – Tycho Brahe) it was considered “new star” (nova stella) – hence the name “nova”;

    it was in fact a supernova, but this classification (nova / supernova) was done much later (20th century) so at the time of it’s discovery it was a nova 🙂

  2. Since nobody knew the difference between novae and supernovae before 1935, I’m going to count SNe among the brightest pre-telescopic novae. That would make the Crab supernova of 1054 the brightest.

  3. I have several possible answers.

    The only novae, the first, was reported by Pliny the Elder in 78AD, with the ‘new star’ visible in Scorpius during 134 BC – starting the original star ancient catalogue by Hipparchus. It presumably reached 1st magnitude.

    The other argument is that before the telescope there was no distinction between nova and supernovae (they knew not the mechanisms that caused them.) Baade and Zwicky did that in 1934!

    If so the brightest visually we know of was Lupus supernova in 1006AD. and it reached ?7.5 magnitude. It was so bright it was seen in the daylight hours. Supernovae of 1054, 1604 and 1572 were not as bright.

    (Another occurred in 185AD in Centaurus, and according to the Chinese was visible for 8 months, however, we are still uncertain what this event was.)

    However, if we assume based on a remnants, by the same logic, the brightest probably was the Vela Supernova, which is the largest SNR in the sky – covering some 8 degrees of sky. Based on the rate of expansion, this star blew between 10,000 and 12000 years ago, and from the closeness, reach above ?12 at maximum.

    Knowing the trickiness it is none of these are correct.

    Note: iantresman said;

    “V603 Aquilae is considered one of the brightest novae of all time, reaching a magnitude of -1.4. Although it was detected in 1914…”

    No. Actually, It was 1904, and it wasn’t pre-telescopic. It is the brightest since Kepler’s supernova. However, it is thought to be the brightest known comparing luminosity wise. (I recent years the hypernova have proven to be even more luminous!)

    Comment: Typing “brightest nova in history” in wiki gives Nova Aquila. I’d assume that the answer is not on those search pages, else it is too easy from Jean’s quizzing.

  4. Ooops! The Vela supernova remnant reached ?12 magnitude.
    (sunglasses anyone?)

  5. The first ‘nova’ observed and recorded by mankind was probably SN 185 between the constellations Circinus and Centaurus, centered at RA 14&suph; 43&supm; δ -62° 30′, in Circinus. It was recorded by Chinese astronomers in the Book of the Later Han, in the year 185 CE, and may also have been recorded in Roman literature.

    As for the “brightest… pre-telescopic nova”… that’s a matter of speculation.

    (I hope the HTML tags work!)

  6. NUTS! Take 2…

    The first ‘nova’ observed and recorded by mankind was probably SN 185 between the constellations Circinus and Centaurus, centered at RA 14h; 43m; δ -62° 30′, in Circinus. It was recorded by Chinese astronomers in the Book of the Later Han, in the year 185 CE, and may also have been recorded in Roman literature.

    As for the “brightest… pre-telescopic nova”… that’s a matter of speculation.

  7. Yes, there has been a connection to this object as a nova, but the nature of this object is still not very well tied down. The stellar (and not cometary) nature has been deduced from the translated word “twinkling” in the original text, This infers that the source was stellar.
    If we eliminate all possibilities, then a nova is only left, which conveniently does not leave a lasting remnant. If we apply the same restrictions as we did with our supernova candidates, then the magnitude would have to reach ?3 in magnitude. This is certainly fainter than the one in 1006AD – which also left a remnant!
    As novae has a range during an outburst of between ten and fifteen magnitudes, so the progenitor would have to be magnitude seven to twelve. Any cataclysmic variable star (or binary white dwarf) this bright would be easily visible today. Downes and Shara (1993) search found no variables that match these criteria.
    It could be the supernova remnant RCW 89 and its pulsar PSR 1449-64, which has a central spinning white dwarf, but recently this was discounted, as the spin down rate is far to rapid for the progenitor to be 185AD. It has been estimated that this SN in 185AD only reached a maximum of ?2.2 magnitude, so it is again fainter than SN in 1006 AD.

    Further Reading; Schaefer, B.; S&T, 70, 261 (1985)

    Hence, Jean’s ‘nova’ answer cannot have been this star with any certainty.

    Note The Chinese records in 52-word paragraph in the astronomical book known as the “Houhanshu” (The History of the Later Han Dynasty ) suggest the star was seen on 7th September 185AD.

  8. The question mark in the numberss quote above should be negative signs! Sorry

    (Little test Does – = – )

  9. Despite absolute magnitude considerations, one possibly brighter one to beings on earth due to proximity may have been Orion. Just my version of a swag. I suspect there may have been many more in pre observer times.

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