New Nova Flares in Sagittarius – How to See it in Your Scope

A nova farmer would do well in the fields of Sagittarius. Four nights ago on September 27, Japanese amateur Koichi Itagaki plucked another “new star” from its starry furrows, the third nova discovered there this year!

For a few days, it was informally called Nova Sagittarii #3, but today received the official title of V5669 Sagittarii. Like the others, this one’s bright enough to see in a small telescope.

Itagaki first recorded it in his patrol camera at magnitude +9.5. The universe conceals so many of its greatest conflagrations as points of light that go from faint to bright. Novae are no exception. Such is the amateur observer’s lot. We need bring a mental picture, knowledge and a bit of imagination to the table to appreciate this bits of light that go boom in the night.

Use this wide finder map of Sagittarius to get a general idea of the nova's location. Lucky for us, it's in the same low power field of view of the pretty cluster-dark nebula combo NGC 6520 and Barnard 86, the so-called Inkspot Nebula. Source: Stellarium
Use this wide finder map of Sagittarius to get a general idea of the nova’s location. Lucky for us, it’s in the same low power field of view of the pretty cluster-dark nebula combo NGC 6520 and Barnard 86, the Inkspot Nebula. Source: Stellarium

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 in a brilliant display of light. Suddenly, a star that may have been 15th or 20th magnitude flares brightly enough to see in a Walmart telescope.

Nova illustration with an expanding cloud of debris surrounding central fireball emitting red hydrogen-alpha light.
Nova illustration with an expanding cloud of debris surrounding central fireball emitting red hydrogen-alpha light.

October’s not exactly prime time for viewing Sagittarius for mid-northern observers. By late evening twilight, it’s already in low in the southwestern sky. But if you can find an opening in that direction or if you’re lucky enough to have a 15-minute-wide gap between the trees like I do, you can spot this sucker. I set up my scope shortly before 8 o’clock or about an hour after sundown. Western Sagittarius remains in reasonably good view for about another hour.

Start at the Gamma Sagittarii and star hop from there to Gamma 1 and then north to the small star cluster NGC 6520 and adjacent dark nebula Barnard 86. You may not see the nebula because of atmospheric extinction at low altitude, but the cluster stands out well. A magnitude 7 star lies along its northwestern edge, and the nova is just 1/2 degree from there. If you have a go-to scope, its celestial coordinates are: R.A. 18 hours 3.5 minutes, Dec. -28 degrees 16 minutes.

AAVSO chart showing the location of V5669 Sgr. North is up. I've added the star cluster NGC 6520 and Barnard 86. To make your own charts of the nova and its neighborhood, go to aavso.org, type in the star's name and select "Create a finder chart".
AAVSO chart showing the location of V5669 Sgr. North is up. I’ve added the star cluster NGC 6520 and Barnard 86. To create your own customized charts of the nova, go to aavso.org, type in the star’s name and select “Create a finder chart”. Credit: American Assn. of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO)

To precisely pinpoint the nova, use the AAVSO chart, which also includes comparison stars with their magnitudes labeled (but without the decimal point). Do you notice any color? Photos show it as pale red from the emission of hydrogen-alpha light in the deep red of the visual spectrum. Novae often emit H-alpha especially in their early, hot “fireball” stage as gases are rapidly expanding from the explosion into space.

The pretty star cluster NGC 6520 and Ink Spot Nebula Barnard 86. The cross shows the location of the nova. Credit: Johannes Schedler / panther-observatory.com
The pretty star cluster NGC 6520 and Ink Spot Nebula Barnard 86. The cross shows the location of the nova. The star field may look intimidating, but this time exposure photo reveals minions more than are visible in an amateur telescope. Credit: Johannes Schedler / panther-observatory.com

No telling what the star will do in the coming days. That’s what makes novae and variable stars in general so much fun to watch. I caught the star Monday night September 28 at magnitude +8.6. The following night it dropped to 9.3 and then edged back up to 9.2 last night.  Astronomers study these fluctuations to understand a nova’s behavior and evolution. I can’t wait to see what it’s doing tonight.

One thing I really like about this nova is its location so near a pretty pair of deep sky objects. On your way to this amazing pinprick of light, stop by the cluster and dark nebula for a final farewell to the summer season.

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.

Ancient Galaxies Fed On Gas, Not Collisions

[/caption]The traditional picture of galaxy growth is not pretty. In fact, it’s a kind of cosmic cannibalism: two galaxies are caught in ominous tango, eventually melding together in a fiery collision, thus spurring on an intense but short-lived bout of star formation. Now, new research suggests that most galaxies in the early Universe increased their stellar populations in a considerably less violent way, simply by burning through their own gas over long periods of time.

The research was conducted by a group of astronomers at NASA’s Spitzer Science Center in Pasadena, California. The team used the Spitzer Space Telescope to peer at 70 distant galaxies that flourished when the Universe was only 1-2 billion years old. The spectra of 70% of these galaxies showed an abundance of H alpha, an excited form of hydrogen gas that is prevalent in busy star-forming regions. Today, only one out of every thousand galaxies carries such an abundance of H alpha; in fact, the team estimates that star formation in the early Universe outpaced that of today by a factor of 100!

This split view shows how a normal spiral galaxy around our local universe (left) might have looked back in the distant universe, when astronomers think galaxies would have been filled with larger populations of hot, bright stars (right). Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/STScI

Not only did these early galaxies crank out stars much faster than their modern-day counterparts, but they created much larger stars as well. By grazing on their own stores of gas, galaxies from this epoch routinely formed stars up to 100 solar masses in size.

These impressive bouts of star formation occurred over the course of hundreds of millions of years. The extremely long time scales involved suggest that while they probably played a minor role, galaxy mergers were not the main precursor to star formation in the Universe’s younger years. “This type of galactic cannibalism was rare,” said Ranga-Ram Chary, a member of the team. “Instead, we are seeing evidence for a mechanism of galaxy growth in which a typical galaxy fed itself through a steady stream of gas, making stars at a much faster rate than previously thought.” Even on cosmic scales, it would seem that slow and steady really does win the race.

Source: JPL