Exploding Binary Stars Will Light Up the Sky in 2022

Artist’s impression of the VFTS 352 star system, the hottest and most massive double star system to date where the two components are in contact and sharing material. Credit: ESO/L. Calçada

Stellar collisions are an amazingly rare thing. According to our best estimates, such events only occur in our galaxy (within globular clusters) once every 10,000 years. It’s only been recently, thanks to ongoing improvements in instrumentation and technology, that astronomers have been able to observe such mergers taking place. As of yet, no one has ever witnessed this phenomena in action – but that may be about to change!

According to study from a team of researchers from Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, a binary star system that will likely merge and explode in 2022. This is an historic find, since it will allow astronomers to witness a stellar merger and explosion for the first time in history. What’s more, they claim, this explosion will be visible with the naked-eye to observers here on Earth.

The findings were presented last week at the 229th Meeting of the American Astronomical Society (AAS). In a presentation titled “A Precise Prediction of a Stellar Merger and Red Nova Outburst“, Professor Lawrence Molnar and his team shared findings that indicate how this binary pair will merge in about six years time. This event, they claim, will cause an outburst of light so bright that it will become the brightest object in the night sky.

Professor Lawrence Molnar of the Calvin College’s Dept. of Physics and Astronomy. He predicts KIC 9832227 will collide and explode in 2022. Credit: calvin.edu

This binary star system, which is known as KIC 9832227, is one that Prof. Molnar and his colleagues – which includes students from the Apache Point Observatory and the University of Wyoming – have been monitoring since 2013. His interest in the star was piqued during a conference in 2013 when Karen Kinemuchi (an astronomers with the Apache Point Observatory) presented findings about brightness changes in the star.

This led to questions about the nature of this star system – specifically, whether it was a pulsar or a binary pair. After conducting their own observations using the Calvin observatory, Prof. Molnar and his colleagues concluded that the star was a  contact binary – a class of binary star where the two stars are close enough to share an atmosphere. This brought to mind similar research in the past about another binary star system known as V1309 Scorpii.

This binary pair also had a shared atmosphere; and over time, their orbital period kept decreasing until (in 2008) they unexpectedly collided and exploded. Believing that KIC 9832227 would undergo a similar fate, they began conducting tests to see if the star system was exhibiting the same behavior. The first step was to make spectroscopic observations to see if their observations could be explained by the presence of a companion star.

As Cara Alexander, a Calvin College student and one of the co-authors on the team’s research paper, explained in a college press release:

“We had to rule out the possibility of a third star. That would have been a pedestrian, boring explanation. I was processing data from two telescopes and obtained images that showed a signature of our star and no sign of a third star. Then we knew we were looking at the right thing. It took most of the summer to analyze the data, but it was so exciting. To be a part of this research, I don’t know any other place where I would get an opportunity like that; Calvin is an amazing place.”

Diagram showing the summer constellations of Cygnus and Lyra and the position of KIC 9832227 (shown with a red circle). Credit: calvin.edu

The next step was to measure the pair’s orbital period, to see it was in fact getting shorter over time – which would indicate that the stars were moving closer to each other. By 2015, Prof. Molnar and his team determined that the stars would eventually collide, resulting in a kind of stellar explosion known as a “Red Nova”. Initially, they estimated this would take place between 2018 and 2020, but have since placed the date at 2022.

In addition, they predict that the burst of light it will cause will be bright enough to be seen from Earth. The star will be visible as part of the constellation Cygnus, and it appear as an addition star in the familiar Northern Cross star pattern (see above). This is an historic case, since no astronomer has ever been able to accurately predict when and where a stellar collision would take place in the past.

What’s more, this discovery is immensely significant because it represents a break with the traditional discovery process. Not only have small research institutions and universities not been the ones to take the lead on these sorts of discoveries in the past, but student-and-teacher teams have also not been the ones who got to make them. As Molnar explained it:

“Most big scientific projects are done in enormous groups with thousands of people and billions of dollars. This project is just the opposite. It’s been done using a small telescope, with one professor and a few students looking for something that is not likely. Nobody has ever predicted a nova explosion before. Why pay someone to do something that almost certainly won’t succeed? It’s a high-risk proposal. But at Calvin it’s only my risk, and I can use my work on interesting, open-ended questions to bring extra excitement into my classroom. Some projects still have an advantage when you don’t have as much time or money.”

The model Prof. Molnar and his team constructed of the double star system KIC 9832227, which is a contact binary (i.e. two stars that are touching). Credit: calvin.edu.

Over the course of the next year, Molnar and his colleagues will be monitoring KIC 9832227 carefully, and in multiple wavelengths. This will be done with the help of the NROA’s Very Large Array (VLA), NASA’s Infrared Telescope Facility at Mauna Kea, and the ESA’s XMM-Newton spacecraft. These observatories will study the star’s radio, infrared and X-ray emissions, respectively.

Molnar also expects that amateur astronomers will be able to monitor the pair’s orbital timing and variations in brightness. And if he and his team’s predictions are correct, every student and stargazer in the northern hemisphere – not to mention people who just happen to be out for a walk – will be privy to the amazing light show. This is sure to be a once-in-a-lifetime event, so stay tuned for more information!

Interestingly enough, this historic discovery is also the subject of a documentary film. Titled “Luminous“, the documentary – which is directed by Sam Smartt, a Calvin professor of communication arts and sciences – chronicles the process that led Prof. Molnar and his team to make this unprecedented discovery. The documentary will also include footage of the Red Nova as it happens in 2022, and is expected to be released sometime in 2023.

Check out the trailer below:

Further Reading: Calvin College, Science Mag

Solved: The Riddle of the Nova of 1670

This chart of the position of a nova (marked in red) that appeared in the year 1670 recorded by the astronomer Hevelius and was published by the Royal Society in England in their journal Philosophical Transactions. Image credit: The Royal Society

It is a 17th century astronomical enigma that has persisted right up until modern times.

On June 20, 1670, a new star appeared in the evening sky that gave 17th century astronomers pause. Eventually peaking out at +3rd magnitude, the ruddy new star in the modern day constellation of Vulpecula the Fox was visible for almost two years before vanishing from sight.

The exact nature of Nova Vulpeculae 1670 has always remained a mystery. The event has often been described as a classic nova… but if it was indeed a garden variety recurrent nova in our own Milky Way galaxy, then why haven’t we seen further outbursts? And why did it stay so bright, for so long?

Now, recent findings from the European Southern Observatory announced in the journal Nature this past March reveal something even more profound: the Nova of 1670 may have actually been the result of a rare stellar collision.

The remnant of the nova of 1670 seen with modern instruments
The remnant of the nova of 1670 seen with modern instruments and created from a combination of visible-light images from the Gemini telescope (blue), a submillimetre map showing the dust from the SMA (yellow) and finally a map of the molecular emission from APEX and the SMA (red). Image credit: ESO/T. Kaminski

“For many years, this object was thought to be a nova,” said ESO researcher Tomasz Kaminski of the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Bonn Germany in a recent press release. “But the more it was studied, the less it looked like an ordinary nova—or indeed any other kind of exploding star.”

A typical nova occurs when material being siphoned off a companion star onto a white dwarf star during a process known as accretion builds up to a point where a runaway fusion reaction occurs.

ESO researchers used an instrument known as the Atacama Pathfinder EXperiment telescope (APEX) based on the high Chajnantor plateau in Chile to probe the remnant nebula from the 1670 event at submillimeter wavelengths. They found that the mass and isotopic composition of the resulting nebula was very uncharacteristic of a standard nova event.

So what was it?

A best fit model for the 1670 event is a rare stellar merger, with two main sequence stars smashing together and exploding in a grand head on collision, leaving the resulting nebula we see today. This event also resulted in a newly recognized category of star known as a “red transient” or luminous red nova.

Universe Today caught up with Mr. Kaminski recently on the subject of red transients and the amazing find:

“In our galaxy we are quite confident that four other objects were observed in outburst owing to a stellar merger: V838 Mon (famous for its spectacular light echo, eruption 2002), V4332 Sgr (eruption 1994), V1309 Sco (observed as an eclipsing binary before its outburst in 2008), OGLE-2002-BLG-360 (recent, but most similar to CK Vul eruption, 2002).Red transients are bright enough to be observed in nearby galaxies. Among them are M31 RV (first recognized “red variable”, eruption 1989), M85 OT2006 (eruption 2006), NGC300 OT2008, etc. Very recently, a few months ago, another one went off in the Andromeda Galaxy. With the increasing number of sky surveys we surely will discover many more.”

Though astronomers such as Voituret Anthelme, Johannes Hevelius and Giovanni Cassini all noted the 1670 nova, the nebula and suspected progenitor star wasn’t successfully recovered until 1981.  Often cited as the oldest and faintest observation of a nova, Hevelius referred to the 1670 apparition as ‘nova sub capite Cygni,’ or a new star located below the head of the Swan near the star Albireo the constellation of Cygnus. Astronomers of the day also noted the crimson color of the new star, also fitting with the modern red transient hypothesis of two main sequence stars merging.

This map includes most of the stars that can be seen on a dark clear night with the naked eye. It shows the small constellation of Vulpecula (The Fox), which lies close to the more prominent constellation of Cygnus (The Swan) in the northern Milky Way. The location of the exploding star Nova Vul 1670 is marked with a red circle.
This chart shows the small constellation of Vulpecula (The Fox), and the location of the exploding star Nova Vul 1670 (red circle). Image credit: ESO/IAU/Sky & Telescope

“We observed CK Vul with the hope to find some submillimeter emission, but were completely surprised by how intense the emission was and how abundant in molecules the gas surrounding CK Vul is,” Kaminski told Universe Today. “Also, we have ongoing observational programs to search for objects similar to CK Vul.”

Follow up observations of the region were also carried out by the Submillimeter Array (SMA) and the Effelsberg radio telescope in Germany. The Nova of 1670 occurred about 1,800 light years distant along the galactic plane in the Orion-Cygnus arm of our Milky Way galaxy, of which the Sun and our solar system is a member. We actually had a naked eye classical nova just last year in roughly the same direction, which was visible in the adjacent constellation of Delphinus the Dolphin.

Of course, these garden variety novae are in a distinctly different class of events from supernovae, the likes of which have not been seen in our galaxy with the unaided eye in modern times since Kepler’s supernova in 1604.

The Atacama Pathfinder Experiment (APEX) telescope on the hunt. Image credit: ESO/ Babak Tafreshi
The Atacama Pathfinder Experiment (APEX) telescope on the hunt. Image credit: ESO/ Babak Tafreshi

How often do stars collide? While rogue collisions of passing stars are extremely rare—remember, space is mostly nothing—the odds go up for closely orbiting binary pairs. What would really be amazing is to witness a modern day nearby red transient in the act of formation, though for now, we’ll have to console ourselves with studying the aftermath of the 1670 event as the next best thing.

Recent estimates give one (merger) event per 2 years in the Milky Way galaxy,” Kaminski told Universe Today. “But we currently know so little about violent merger events that this number is very uncertain.”

Previously cited as a recurrent nova, the story of the 1670 event is a wonderful example of how new methods, combined with old observations, can be utilized to solve some of the lingering mysteries of modern astronomy.