What is a Nova?

What Is A Nova?

There are times when I really wish astronomers could take their advanced modern knowledge of the cosmos and then go back and rewrite all the terminology so that they make more sense. For example, dark matter and dark energy seem like they’re linked, and maybe they are, but really, they’re just mysteries.

Is dark matter actually matter, or just a different way that gravity works over long distances? Is dark energy really energy, or is it part of the expansion of space itself. Black holes are neither black, nor holes, but that doesn’t stop people from imagining them as dark tunnels to another Universe.  Or the Big Bang, which makes you think of an explosion.

Another category that could really use a re-organizing is the term nova, and all the related objects that share that term: nova, supernova, hypernova, meganova, ultranova. Okay, I made those last couple up.

I guess if you go back to the basics, a nova is a star that momentarily brightens up. And a supernova is a star that momentarily brightens up… to death. But the underlying scenario is totally different.

New research shows that some old stars known as white dwarfs might be held up by their rapid spins, and when they slow down, they explode as Type Ia supernovae. Thousands of these "time bombs" could be scattered throughout our Galaxy. In this artist's conception, a supernova explosion is about to obliterate an orbiting Saturn-like planet.   Credit: David A. Aguilar (CfA)
In this artist’s conception, a supernova explosion is about to obliterate an orbiting Saturn-like planet. Credit: David A. Aguilar (CfA)

As we’ve mentioned in many articles already, a supernova commonly occurs when a massive star runs out of fuel in its core, implodes, and then detonates with an enormous explosion.  There’s another kind of supernova, but we’ll get to that later.

A plain old regular nova, on the other hand, happens when a white dwarf – the dead remnant of a Sun-like star – absorbs a little too much material from a binary companion. This borrowed hydrogen undergoes fusion, which causes it to brighten up significantly, pumping up to 100,000 times more energy off into space.

Imagine a situation where you’ve got two main sequence stars like our Sun orbiting one another in a tight binary system. Over the course of billions of years, one of the stars runs out of fuel in its core, expands as a red giant, and then contracts back down into a white dwarf. It’s dead.

Some time later, the second star dies, and it expands as a red giant. So now you’ve got a red dwarf and a white dwarf in this binary system, orbiting around and around each other, and material is streaming off the red giant and onto the smaller white dwarf.

Illustration of a white dwarf feeding off its companion star Credit: ESO / M. Kornmesser
Illustration of a white dwarf feeding off its companion star Credit: ESO / M. Kornmesser

This material piles up on the surface of the white dwarf forming a cosy blanket of stolen hydrogen. When the surface temperature reaches 20 million kelvin, the hydrogen begins to fuse, as if it was the core of a star. Metaphorically speaking, its skin catches fire. No, wait, even better. Its skin catches fire and then blasts off into space.

Over the course of a few months, the star brightens significantly in the sky. Sometimes a star that required a telescope before suddenly becomes visible with the unaided eye. And then it slowly fades again, back to its original brightness.

Some stars do this on a regular basis, brightening a few times a century. Others must clearly be on a longer cycle, we’ve only seen them do it once.

Astronomers think there are about 40 novae a year across the Milky Way, and we often see them in other galaxies.

tycho_brahe
Tycho Brahe: He lived like a sage and died like a fool. He also created his own cosmological model, the Tychonic system.

The term “nova” was first coined by the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe in 1572, when he observed a supernova with his telescope. He called it the “nova stella”, or new star, and the name stuck. Other astronomers used the term to describe any star that brightened up in the sky, before they even really understood the causes.

During a nova event, only about 5% of the material gathered on the white dwarf is actually consumed in the flash of fusion. Some is blasted off into space, and some of the byproducts of fusion pile up on its surface.

Tycho's Supernova Remnant. Credit: Spitzer, Chandra and Calar Alto Telescopes.
Tycho’s Supernova Remnant. Credit: Spitzer, Chandra and Calar Alto Telescopes.

Over millions of years, the white dwarf can collect enough material that carbon fusion can occur. At 1.4 times the mass of the Sun, a runaway fusion reaction overtakes the entire white dwarf star, releasing enough energy to detonate it in a matter of seconds.

If a regular nova is a quick flare-up of fusion on the surface of a white dwarf star, then this event is a super nova, where the entire star explodes from a runaway fusion reaction.

You might have guessed, this is known as a Type 1a supernova, and astronomers use these explosions as a way to measure distance in the Universe, because they always explode with the same amount of energy.

Hmm, I guess the terminology isn’t so bad after all: nova is a flare up, and a supernova is a catastrophic flare up to death… that works.

Now you know. A nova occurs when a dead star steals material from a binary companion, and undergoes a momentary return to the good old days of fusion. A Type Ia supernova is that final explosion when a white dwarf has gathered its last meal.

A Naked Eye Nova Erupts in Centaurus

If you live in the southern hemisphere, the southern sky constellation of Centaurus may look a little different to you tonight, as a bright nova has been identified in the region early this week.

An animation showing a comparison between the constellation Centaurus before and after a nova eruption. Credit and copyright: Ernesto Guido, Nick Howes and Martino Nicolini/Remanzacco Observatory. Click for larger version.
An animation showing a comparison between the constellation Centaurus before and after a nova eruption. Credit and copyright: Ernesto Guido, Nick Howes and Martino Nicolini/Remanzacco Observatory. Click for larger version.

The initial discovery of Nova Centauri 2013 (Nova Cen 2013) was made by observer John Seach based out of Chatsworth Island in New South Wales Australia. The preliminary discovery magnitude for Nova Cen 2013 was magnitude +5.5, just above naked eye visibility from a good dark sky site. Estimates by observers over the past 24 hours place Nova Cen 2013 between magnitudes +4 and +5 “with a bullet,” meaning this one may get brighter still as the week progresses.

Nova Cen 2013
Nova Cen 2013 as imaged from the Siding Spring observatory on December 3rd. (Credit: Ernesto Guido, Nick Howes & Martino Nicolini/Remanzacco Observatory).

We first got wind of the discovery via the American Association of Variable Star Observers yesterday afternoon when alert notice 492 was issued. Established in 1911, the AAVSO is a great resource for info and a fine example of amateur collaboration in the effort to conduct real scientific observation.

Follow-up spectra measurements by Rob Kaufman in White Cliffs Australia and Malcolm Locke in Christchurch New Zealand demonstrated the presence of strong hydrogen alpha and hydrogen beta emission lines, the classic hallmark of an erupting nova. Like Nova Delphini 2013 witnessed by observers in the northern hemisphere, this is a garden variety nova located in our own galaxy, going off as seen along the galactic plane from our Earthbound perspective. A handful of galactic novae are seen each year, but such a stellar conflagration reaching naked eye visibility is worthy of note. In fact, Nova Cen 2013 is already knocking on the ranks of the 30 brightest novae observed of all time.

Nova Cen 2013
A narrow field image (inverted B/W) of  Nova Cen 2013. (Credit: Ednilson Oliveira).

This is not to be confused with a supernova, the last of which observed in our galaxy was Kepler’s Supernova in 1604, just before the advent of the telescope in modern astronomy.  Supernovae are seen in other galaxies all the time, but here at home, you could say we’re “due”.

So, who can see Nova Cen 2013, and who’s left out? Well, the coordinates for the nova are:

Right Ascension: 13 Hours 54’ 45”

Declination: -59°S 09’ 04”

That puts it deep in the southern celestial hemisphere sky where the constellation Centaurus meets up with the constellations of Circinus, Musca and the Crux. Located within three degrees of the +0.6th magnitude star Hadar — also named Beta Centauri — it would be possible to capture the southern deep sky objects of the Coal Sack and Omega Centauri with Nova Cen 2013 in the same wide field of view.

Stellarium
The field of view of Nova Centauri 2013 with a five degree Telrad “bullseye” added for scale. Note that magnitude for selected comparison stars are quoted, minus the decimal points. (Created using Stellarium).

Though Nova Cen 2013 technically peeks above the southern horizon from the extreme southern United States, the viewing circumstances aren’t great. In fact, the nova only rises just before the Sun as seen from Miami in December, at 25 degrees north latitude. The Centaurus region is much better placed in northern hemisphere during the springtime, when many southern tier states can actually glimpse the celestial jewels that lie south, such as Omega Centauri.

But the situation gets better, the farther south you go. From Guayaquil, Ecuador just below the equator, the nova rises to the southeast at about 3 AM local, and sits 20 degrees above the horizon at sunrise.

11PM local from latitude (Created by the author using Starry Night Education Software).
11PM local, from latitude 40 degrees south looking to the southeast. (Created by the author using Starry Night Education Software).

The nova will be circumpolar for observers south of -30 degrees latitude, including cities of Buenos Aires, Cape Town, Sydney and Auckland. Remember, its springtime currently in the southern hemisphere, as we head towards the solstice on December 21st and the start of southern hemisphere summer. We’ve been south of the equator about a half dozen times and it’s a unique experience – for northern star gazers, at least – to see familiar northern constellations such as Orion and Leo hang “upside down” as strange a wonderful new constellations beckon the eye to the south. Also, though the Sun still rises to the east, it transits to the north as you get deep into the southern hemisphere, a fun effect to note!

Latitudes, such as those on par with New Zealand, will get the best views of Nova Cen 2013. Based near latitude 40 degrees south, observers will see the nova about 10 degrees above the southern horizon at lower culmination at a few hour after sunset, headed towards 40 degrees above the southeastern horizon at sunrise.

All indications are that Nova Cen 2013 is a classical nova, a white dwarf star accreting matter from a binary companion until a new round of nuclear fusion occurs. Recurrent novae such as T Pyxidis or U Scorpii may erupt erratically in this fashion over the span of decades.

As of yet, there is no firm distance measurement for Nova Cen 2013, though radio observations with southern sky assets may pin it down. One northern hemisphere based program, known as the EVLA Nova Project, seeks to do just that.

Congrats to John Seach on his discovery, and if you find yourself under southern skies, be sure to check out this astrophysical wonder!

Got pics of Nova Centauri 2013? Be sure to send ‘em in to Universe Today!