Weekly Space Hangout: June 13, 2018: Stella Kafka, Director of the AAVSO

Hosts:
Fraser Cain (universetoday.com / @fcain)
Dr. Paul M. Sutter (pmsutter.com / @PaulMattSutter)
Dr. Kimberly Cartier (KimberlyCartier.org / @AstroKimCartier )
Dr. Morgan Rehnberg (MorganRehnberg.com / @MorganRehnberg & ChartYourWorld.org)

Special Guests:
Stella Kafka is the Director of the American Association of Variable Star Observers.

Announcements:

Astronomy Cast, the show Fraser cohosts with Dr. Pamela Gay, will be celebrating their 500th episode the weekend of Sept 15-16, 2018. Want to join us in Edwardsville, Il? Check out our AC500 site here to find out how!

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Bright Binocular Nova Discovered in Lupus

The possible nova in Lupus photographed on Sept. 25 from Australia. Credit: Joseph Brimacombe
The possible nova in Lupus photographed on Sunday, Sept. 25 from Australia. The star is now bright enough to see in binoculars for observers in the far southern U.S. and points south. Credit: Joseph Brimacombe

On September 20, a particular spot in the constellation Lupus the Wolf was blank of any stars brighter than 17.5 magnitude. Four nights later, as if by some magic trick, a star bright enough to be seen in binoculars popped into view. While we await official confirmation, the star’s spectrum, its tattle-tale rainbow of light, indicates it’s a nova, a sun in the throes of a thermonuclear explosion.

A bright possible nova was discovered only days ago near the 3rd magnitude star Epsilon Lupi. It shot from fainter than magnitude +17.5 to its current magnitude +6.8 in just four nights ... and it's still rising. The nova is bright enough to see in binoculars for observers in the far southern U.S., where it's visible low in the southwestern sky in late evening twilight. This map shows the sky facing southwest about an hour after sunset from Key West, Florida, latitude 24.5 degrees north. Source: Stellarium
The nova was discovered on Sept. 23 near the 3rd magnitude star Epsilon Lupi. It rose from fainter than magnitude +17.5 to its current magnitude +6.8 in just four nights … and it’s still rising. It’s visible low in the southwestern sky in late evening twilight low northern latitudes, the tropics and southern hemisphere. This map shows the sky facing southwest about an hour after sunset from Key West, Florida, latitude 24.5 degrees north. Source: Stellarium

The nova, dubbed ASASSN-16kt for now, was discovered during the ongoing All Sky Automated Survey for SuperNovae (ASAS-SN or “Assassin”), using data from the quadruple 14-cm “Cassius” telescope in CTIO, Chile. Krzysztof  Stanek and team reported the new star in Astronomical Telegram #9538. By the evening of September 23 local time, the object had risen to magnitude +9.1, and it’s currently +6.8. So let’s see — that’s about an 11-magnitude jump or a 24,000-fold increase in brightness! And it’s still on the rise.

Use this chart with binoculars to help you find the likely nova. The field of view is about 5 degrees with north up. The "new star" lies between a bright triangle of stars to the east and the naked-eye star Epsilon Lupi to the west. Stars are labeled with magnitudes. Chart: Bob King,  Source: Stellarium
Use this chart with binoculars to help you find the likely nova. The field of view is about 5 degrees with north up. The “new star” lies between a bright triangle of stars to the east and the naked-eye star Epsilon Lupi to the west. Stars are labeled with magnitudes. Chart: Bob King, Source: Stellarium

The star is located at R.A. 15h 29?, –44° 49.7? in the southern constellation Lupus the Wolf. Even at this low declination, the star would clear the southern horizon from places like Chicago and further south, but in late September Lupus is low in the southwestern sky. To see the nova you’ll need a clear horizon in that direction and observe from the far southern U.S. and points south. If you’ve planned a trip to the Caribbean or Hawaii in the coming weeks, your timing couldn’t have been better!

Novae occur in close binary systems where one star is a tiny but extremely compact white dwarf star. The dwarf pulls material into a disk around itself, some of which is funneled to the surface and ignites in a nova explosion. Credit: NASA
Novae occur in close binary systems where one star is a tiny but extremely compact white dwarf star. The dwarf draws material into a disk around itself, some of which is funneled to the surface and ignites in a nova explosion. Credit: NASA

I’ve drawn the map for Key West, one of southernmost locations on the U.S. mainland, where the nova stands about 7-8° high in late twilight, but you might also see it from southern Texas and the bottom of Arizona if you stand on your tippytoes. Other locales include northern Africa, Finding a good horizon is key. Observers across Central and South America, Africa, India, s. Asia and Australia, where the star is higher up in the western sky at nightfall, are favored.

Nova means “new”, but a nova isn’t a brand new star coming to life but rather an explosion that occurs on the surface of an otherwise faint star no one’s taken notice of – until the blast causes it to brighten 50,000 to 100,000 times.

You can use this AAVSO chart to find the nova and track its changing brightness. Star magnitudes are shown to the tenth with the decimal omitted. Credit: AAVSO
You can use this AAVSO chart to find the nova and track its changing brightness. Star magnitudes are shown to the tenth with the decimal omitted. Click to enlarge. Credit: AAVSO

A nova occurs in a close binary star system, where a small but extremely dense and massive (for its size) white dwarf siphons hydrogen gas from its closely-orbiting companion. After whirling around in a flattened accretion disk around the dwarf, the material gets funneled down to the star’s 150,000 F° surface where gravity compacts and heats the gas until it detonates in a titanic thermonuclear explosion. Suddenly, a faint star that wasn’t on anyone’s radar vaults a dozen magnitudes to become a standout “new star”.

Novae are relatively rare and almost always found in the plane of the Milky Way, where the stars are most concentrated. The more stars, the greater the chances of finding one in a nova outburst. Roughly a handful a year are discovered, many of those in Scorpius and Sagittarius, in the direction of the galactic bulge.

We’ll keep tabs on this new object and report back with more information and photos as they become available. You can follow the new celebrity as well as print out finder charts on the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO) website by typing ASASSN-16kt in the info boxes.

I sure wish I wasn’t stuck in Minnesota right now or I’d be staring down the wolf’s new star!

Nova in Sagittarius Brighter Than Ever – Catch it with the Naked Eye!

Great news about that new nova in Sagittarius. It’s still climbing in brightness and now ranks as the brightest nova seen from mid-northern latitudes in nearly two years. Even from the northern states, where Sagittarius hangs low in the sky before dawn, the “new star” was easy to spy this morning at magnitude +4.4.

While not as rare as hen’s teeth, novae aren’t common and those visible without optical aid even less so. The last naked eye nova seen from outside the tropics was V339 Del (Nova Delphini), which peaked at +4.3 in August 2013. The new kid on the block could soon outshine it if this happy trend continues.

This view shows the sky facing south-southeast just before the start of dawn in mid-March from the central U.S. The nova's located squarely in the Teapot constellation. Source: Stellarium
This view shows the sky facing south-southeast shortly before the start of dawn in late March from the central U.S. The nova is centrally located within the Teapot. Source: Stellarium

Now bearing the official title of Nova Sagittarii 2015 No. 2, the nova was discovered on March 15 by amateur astronomer and nova hunter John Seach of Chatsworth Island, NSW, Australia. At the time it glowed at the naked eye limit of magnitude +6. Until this morning I wasn’t able to see it with the naked eye, but from a dark sky site, it’s there for the picking. So long as you know exactly where to look.

The chart and photo above will help guide you there. At the moment, the star’s about 15° high at dawn’s start, but it rises a little higher and becomes easier to see with each passing day. Find your sunrise time HERE and then subtract an hour and 45 minutes. That will bring you to the beginning of astronomical twilight, an ideal time to catch the nova at its highest in a dark sky.

Use this AAVSO chart to pinpoint the nova's location and also to help you estimate its brightness. Numbers shown are star magnitudes with the decimal points omitted. Credit: AAVSO
Use this AAVSO chart to pinpoint the nova’s location and also to help you estimate its brightness. Numbers shown are star magnitudes with the decimal points omitted. Credit: AAVSO

To see it with the naked eye, identify the star with binoculars first and then aim your gaze there. I hope you’ll be as pleasantly surprised as I was to see it. To check on the nova’s ups and downs, drop by the American Association Variable Star Observers (AAVSO) list of recent observations.

Seeing the nova without optical aid took me back to the time before the telescope when a “new star” in the sky would have been met with great concern. Changes in the heavens in that pre-telescopic era were generally considered bad omens. They were also thought to occur either in Earth’s atmosphere or within the Solar System. The universe has grown by countless light years since then. Nowadays we sweat the small stuff – unseen asteroids – which were unknown in that time.

AAVSO light curve showing the nova's brightening trend since discovery. Dates are at bottom, magnitudes at left. Credit: AAVSO
AAVSO light curve showing the nova’s brightening since discovery. Dates are along the bottom, magnitudes at left. If the trend continues, Nova Sgr #2 could outshine the 2013 nova in Delphinus very soon. Credit: AAVSO

Novae occur in binary star systems where a tiny but gravitationally powerful white dwarf star pulls gases from a close companion star. The material piles up in a thin layer on the dwarf’s hot surface, fuses and burns explosively to create the explosion we dub a nova. Spectra of the expanding debris envelope reveal the imprint of hydrogen gas and as well as ionized iron.

Nova illustration with an expanding cloud of debris surrounding central fireball emitting red hydrogen-alpha light.
Artist’s view of a nova with an expanding cloud of debris surrounding  the central fireball emitting red hydrogen-alpha light.

Shortly after discovery, the nova’s debris shell was expanding at the rate of ~1,740 miles per second (2,800 km/sec) or more than 6.2 million mph (10 million mph). It’s since slowed to about half that rate. Through a telescope the star glows pale yellow but watch for its color to deepen to yellow orange and even red. Right now, it’s still in the fireball phase, with the dwarf star hidden by an envelope of fiery hydrogen gas.

As novae evolve, they’ll often turn from white or yellow to red. Emission of deep red light from hydrogen atoms – called hydrogen alpha –  gives them their warm, red color. Hydrogen, the most common element in stars, gets excited through intense radiation or collisions with atoms (heat) and re-emits a ruby red light when it returns to its rest state. Astronomers see the light as bright red emission line in the star’s spectrum. Spectra of the nova show additional emission lines of hydrogen beta or H-beta (blue light emitted by hydrogen) and iron.

There are actually several reasons why novae rouge up over time, according to former AAVSO director Arne Henden:

“Energy from the explosion gets absorbed by the surrounding material in a nova and re-emitted as H-alpha,” said Henden. Not only that but as the explosion expands over time, the same amount of energy is spread over a larger area.

“The temperature drops,” said Henden, “causing the fireball to cool and turn redder on its own.” As the eruption expands and cools, materials blasted into the surrounding space condense into a shell of soot that absorbs that reddens the nova much the same way dusty air reddens the Sun.

Nova Sagittarii’s current pale yellow color results from seeing a mix of light –  blue from the explosion itself plus red from the expanding fireball. As for its distance from Earth, I haven’t heard, but given that the progenitor star was 15th magnitude or possibly fainter, we’re probably talking in the thousands of light years.

Wide view of the Sagittarius-Scorpius region with some of the brighter star clusters and nebulae labeled for binocular browsing. Credit: Bob King
Wide view of the Sagittarius-Scorpius region with some of the brighter star clusters and nebulae labeled for binocular browsing. Credit: Bob King

In an earlier article on the nova’s discovery I mentioned taking a look at Saturn as long as you made the effort the get up early. Here’s a photo of the Sagittarius region you can use to help you further your dawn binocular explorations. The entire region is rich with star clusters and nebula, many of which were cataloged long ago by French astronomer Charles Messier, hence the “M” numbers.

Geek Out! How to Build Your Own Nova Delphini Light Curve

And now for something to appeal to your inner geek. Or, if  you’re like me, your outer geek. Many of you have been watching the new nova in Delphinus with the naked eye and binoculars since it burst onto the scene early Aug. 14. In a moment I’ll show how to turn your observations into a cool representation of the nova’s behavior over time.

Updated Nova Delphini 2013 chart using the latest visual magnitudes from the AAVSO showing stars around the nova to magnitude 7.1. Stellarium
Updated Nova Delphini 2013 chart using the latest visual magnitudes from the AAVSO showing stars around the nova to magnitude 7.1. Click for larger version. Stellarium

Where I live in northern Minnesota, we’ve had a lucky run of clear nights since the outburst began. Each night I’ve gone out with my 8×40 binoculars and star chart to estimate the nova’s brightness. The procedure is easy and straightforward. You find comparison stars near the nova with known magnitudes, then select one a little brighter and one a little fainter and interpolate between the two to arrive at the nova’s magnitude.

Estimating a star's magnitude by creating a sliding scale in your mind's eye between a stars that bracket the nova in brightness. Illustration: Bob King
Estimating a star’s magnitude by creating a sliding scale in your mind’s eye between stars that bracket the nova in brightness. Illustration: Bob King

For example, if the nova’s brightness lies halfway between the magnitude 4.8 and 5.7 stars it’s about magnitude 5.3. The next night you might notice it’s not exactly halfway but a tad brighter or closer to the 4.8 star. Then you’d measure 5.2. Remember that the smaller the number, the brighter the object. I’ve found that defocusing the stars into disks makes it a bit easier to estimate these differences.

In time, you’ll come up with a list of magnitudes or brightness estimates for Nova Delphini. Here’s mine to date:

* Aug. 14: 5.8
* Aug. 15: 4.9
* Aug. 16: 5.0
* Aug. 17: 5.0
* Aug. 18: 5.0
* Aug. 19: 5.2
* Aug. 20: 5.5

Template you can use to plot your own estimates of Nova Delphini 2013's night by night brightness through Sept. 11. Click for larger version.
Template you can use to plot your own estimates of Nova Delphini 2013’s night by night brightness through Sept. 11. Click for larger version.

So far just numbers, but there’s a way to turn this into a satisfying visual picture of the nova’s long-term behavior. Graph it! That’s what astronomers do, and they call it a light curve.

I dug around and came up with this very basic template. The horizontal or x-axis measures time in days, the vertical or y-axis plots the nova’s brightness measured in magnitudes. You can either right-click and save the image above or grab the higher-res version HERE.

I plotted my own brightness estimates of the nova using Photoshop Elements. You can do it on computer or with paper and pencil.
I plotted my own brightness estimates of the nova using Photoshop Elements. You can do it on computer or with paper and pencil.

Next, print out a copy and lay in your data points with pencil and ruler the old-fashioned way or use an imaging program like Photoshop or Paint to do the same on the computer. I use a very basic version of Photoshop Elements to plot my observations. Once your observations are marked, connect them to build your light curve.

Connecting the dots, we can start to see how the nova behaves over time. The sudden jump from obscurity as well as the brief plateau before fading are obvious.
Connecting the dots, we can start to see how the nova behaves over time. The sudden jump from obscurity as well as the brief plateau before fading are obvious.

Right away you’ll notice a few interesting things. The nova shot up from approximately 17th magnitude on Aug. 13 to 6.8 on Aug. 14 – a leap of more than 10 magnitudes, which translates to a nearly 10,000 fold increase in brightness.

I wasn’t able to see the Nova Del top out at around 4.4 magnitude – that happened when I was asleep the next morning – but I did catch it at 4.9. The next few days the nova hits a plateau followed by what appears for the moment like a steady decline in brightness. Will it rocket back up or continue to fade? That’s for you and your binoculars to find out the next clear night.

Official AAVSO light curve to date for Nova Delphini 2013 created using their light curve generator. The plot includes observations from many observers. Copyright: AAVSO
AAVSO light curve to date for Nova Delphini 2013 created using their light curve generator. The plot includes observations from many observers. Copyright: AAVSO

If you’d like to take the next step and contribute your observations for scientific use, head over to the AAVSO (American Assn. of Variable Star Observers) and become a member. Even if you don’t sign up, access to data, charts and light curves of novae and other variable stars is completely free.

Nova Sagittarii 2012 light curve. Notice the occasional plateaus as well as bumps in brightness as it faded back to minimum light. Credit: NASA
Nova Sagittarii 2012 light curve. Notice the occasional plateaus as well as bumps in brightness as it faded back to minimum light. Credit: NASA

I get a kick out of comparing my basic light curves with those created with thousands of observations contributed by hundreds of observers. The basic AAVSO curve looks all scrunched up for the moment because their time scale (x-axis) is much longer term than in my simple example. But guess what? You can change the scale using their light curve generator and open up the view a little more as I did in the curve above.

Light curve of V2467 Cygni, a nova that appeared in Cygnus in 2007. Credit: AAVSO
Light curve of V2467 Cygni, a nova that appeared in Cygnus in 2007. Credit: AAVSO

Here are a couple other typical novae light curves. By the time you’re done looking at the examples here as well as creating your own, you’ll gain a familiarity that may surprise you. Not only will be able to interpret trends in Nova Delphini’s brightness, but you’ll better understand the behavior of other variable stars at a glance. It’s as easy as connecting the dots.

 

Recurrent Novae, Light Echoes, and the Mystery of T Pyxidis

Some of the most violent events in our Universe were the topic of discussion this morning at the 222nd meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Indianapolis, Indiana as researchers revealed recent observations of light echoes seen as the result of stellar explosions.

A light echo occurs when we see dust and ejected material illuminated by a brilliant nova. A similar phenomenon results in what is termed as a reflection nebula. A star is said to go nova when a white dwarf star siphons off material from a companion star. This accumulated hydrogen builds up under terrific pressure, sparking a brief outburst of nuclear fusion.

A very special and rare case is a class of cataclysmic variables known as recurrent novae. Less than dozen of these types of stars are known of in our galaxy, and the most famous and bizarre case is that of T Pyxidis.

Located in the southern constellation of Pyxis, T Pyxidis generally hovers around +15th magnitude, a faint target even in a large backyard telescope. It has been prone, however, to great outbursts approaching naked eye brightness roughly every 20 years to magnitude +6.4. That’s a change in brightness almost 4,000-fold.

But the mystery has only deepened surrounding this star. Eight outbursts were monitored by astronomers from 1890 to 1966, and then… nothing. For decades, T Pyxidis was silent. Speculation shifted from when T Pyxidis would pop to why this star was suddenly undergoing a lengthy phase of silence.

Could models for recurrent novae be in need of an overhaul?

T Pyxidis finally answered astronomers’ questions in 2011, undergoing its first outburst in 45 years. And this time, they had the Hubble Space Telescope on hand to witness the event.

Light curve of the 2011 eruption of T Pyxidis. (Credit: AAVSO).
Light curve of the 2011 eruption of T Pyxidis. (Credit: AAVSO).

In fact, Hubble had just been refurbished during the final visit of the space shuttle Atlantis to the orbiting observatory in 2009 on STS-125 with the installation of its Wide Field Camera 3, which was used to monitor the outburst of T Pyxidis.

The Hubble observation of the light echo provided some surprises for astronomers as well.

“We fully expected this to be a spherical shell,” Said Columbia University’s Arlin Crotts, referring to the ejecta in the vicinity of the star. “This observation shows it is a disk, and it is populated with fast-moving ejecta from previous outbursts.”

Indeed, this discovery raises some exciting possibilities, such as providing researchers with the ability to map the anatomy of previous outbursts from the star as the light echo evolves and illuminates the 3-D interior of the disk like a Chinese lantern. The disk is inclined about 30 degrees to our line of sight, and researchers suggest that the companion star may play a role in the molding of its structure from a sphere into a disk. The disk of material surrounding T Pyxidis is huge, about 1 light year across. This results in an apparent ring diameter of 6 arc seconds (about 1/8th the apparent size of Jupiter at opposition) as seen from our Earthly vantage point.

Paradoxically, light echoes can appear to move at superluminal speeds. This illusion is a result of the geometry of the path that the light takes to reach the observer, crossing similar distances but arriving at different times.

And speaking of distance, measurement of the light echoes has given astronomers another surprise. T Pyxidis is located about 15,500 light years distant, at the higher 10% end of the previous 6,500-16,000 light year estimated range. This means that T Pyxidis is an intrinsically bright object, and its outbursts are even more energetic than thought.

Light echoes have been studied surrounding other novae, but this has been the first time that scientists have been able to map them extensively in 3 dimensions.

An artist's conception of the disk of material surrounding T Pyxidis. (Credit: ESA/NASA & A. Feild STScl/AURA).
An artist’s conception of the disk of material surrounding T Pyxidis. (Credit: ESA/NASA & A. Feild STScl/AURA).

“We’ve all seen how light from fireworks shells during the grand finale will light up the smoke and soot from the shells earlier in the show,” said team member Stephen Lawrence of Hofstra University. “In an analogous way, we’re using light from T Pyx’s latest outburst and its propagation at the speed of light to dissect its fireworks displays from decades past.”

Researchers also told Universe Today of the role which amateur astronomers have played in monitoring these outbursts. Only so much “scope time” exists, very little of which can be allocated exclusively to the study of  light echoes. Amateurs and members of the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO) are often the first to alert the pros that an outburst is underway. A famous example of this occurred in 2010, when Florida-based backyard observer Barbara Harris was the first to spot an outburst from recurrent novae U Scorpii.

And although T Pyxidis may now be dormant for the next few decades, there are several other recurrent novae worth continued scrutiny:

Name Max brightness Right Ascension Declination Last Eruption Period(years)
U Scorpii +7.5 16H 22’ 31” -17° 52’ 43” 2010 10
T Pyxidis +6.4 9H 04’ 42” -32° 22’ 48” 2011 20
RS Ophiuchi +4.8 17H 50’ 13” -6° 42’ 28” 2006 10-20
T Coronae Borealis +2.5 15H 59’ 30” 25° 55’ 13” 1946 80?
WZ Sagittae +7.0 20H 07’ 37” +17° 42’ 15” 2001 30

 

Clearly, recurrent novae have a tale to tell us of the role they play in the cosmos. Congrats to Lawrence and team on the discovery… keep an eye out from future fireworks from this rare class of star!

Read the original NASA press release and more on T Pyxidis here.

 

20 Million Observations by Amateur Astronomers!

[/caption]Early into the celebration of its centennial year, observers of the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO) passed another milestone over the weekend, when an amateur astronomer from Belgium contributed the 20 millionth observation of a variable star on February 19, 2011.

Amateur astronomers have been recording changes in the brightness of stars for centuries. The world’s largest database is run by the AAVSO. Started in 1911, it is one of the oldest, continuously operating citizen science projects in the world.

“The long-term study of stellar brightness variation is critical to understanding how stars work and the impact they have on their surroundings. The noble efforts of the engaged AAVSO volunteers play an important role in astronomy and help expand human knowledge,” said Dr. Kevin Marvel, Executive Officer of the American Astronomical Society.

The AAVSO currently receives variable star brightness estimates from about 1,000 amateur astronomers per year. Some variable stars are bright enough to be seen with the unaided eye while others require high-tech equipment. The AAVSO also has a network of robotic telescopes available to members free of charge.

“Because some variable stars are unpredictable and/or change their brightness over long time scales, it is not practical for professional astronomers to watch them every night. Thus, amateurs were recruited to keep tabs on these stars on behalf of professionals,” Dr. Arne Henden, Director of the AAVSO, said.

The 20 millionth observation was made by Dr. Franz-Josef “Josch” Hambsch of Belgium. The observation was of GV Andromeda, member of a class of older, pulsating stars smaller than our Sun. “I like these stars because you can see their entire variation cycle in one night. There have not been many recent observations made of this particular star, so that is why I am monitoring it,” Hambsch said. Hambsch is also a member of the Belgian variable star organization, Vereniging Voor Sterrenkunde, Werkgroep Veranderlijke Sterren (VVS, WVS).

Actual light curve of GV And created from Josch Hambsh's data. One of these points is the 20 millionth observation! Courtesy AAVSO.

The process of estimating a star’s brightness can range from less than a minute to many hours per estimate, but typically takes about five minutes. At that rate, observers have invested the equivalent of about 1.67 million hours of time in collecting observations for the database. Assuming a current median salary of US$33,000, this would be the roughly equivalent to 27.5 million dollars worth of donated time if all the observations were reported today.

“The reality is these observations are invaluable. The database spans many generations and includes data that cannot be reproduced elsewhere. If an astronomer wants to know the history of a particular star, they come to the AAVSO,” Henden said.

The AAVSO’s mission is to coordinate, collect, and distribute variable star data to support scientific research and education. The AAVSO International Database is openly available to the public through their web site (www.aavso.org), where it is queried hundreds of times per day.