NASA’s STEREO Spots a New Nova


While on duty observing the Sun from its position in solar orbit, NASA’s STEREO-B spacecraft captured the sudden appearance of a distant bright object. This flare-up turned out to be a nova — designated Sagittarii 2012 — the violent expulsion of material and radiation from a re-igniting white dwarf star.

Unlike a supernova, which is the cataclysmic collapse and explosion of a massive star whose core has finally fused its last, a nova is the result of material falling onto the surface of a white dwarf that’s part of a binary pair. The material, typically hydrogen and helium gas, is drawn off the white dwarf’s partner which has expanded into a red giant.

Eventually the white dwarf cannot contain all of the material that it has sucked in from its neighbor… material which has been heated to tremendous temperatures on its surface as it got compressed further and further by the white dwarf’s incredibly strong gravity. Fusion occurs on the dwarf’s outermost layers, blasting its surface out into space in an explosion of light and energy.

This is a nova — so called because, when witnessed in the night sky, one could suddenly appear as a “new star” in the heavens — sometimes even outshining all other visible stars!

An individual nova will soon fade, but a white dwarf can produce many such flares over time. It all depends on how rapidly it’s accreting material (and how much there is available.)

Over the course of 4 days, Sagittarii 2012 reached a magnitude of about 8.5… still too dim to be seen with the unaided eye, but STEREO-B was able to detect it with its SECCHI (Sun Earth Connection Coronal and Heliospheric Investigation) instrument, which is sensitive to extreme ultraviolet wavelengths.

The video above was made from images acquired from April 20 – 24, 2012.

It’s not known yet how far away Sagittarii 2012 is but rest assured it poses no threat to Earth. The energy expelled by a nova is nowhere near that of a supernova, and although you wouldn’t want to have a front-row seat to such an event we’re well away from the danger zone.

What this does show is that STEREO-B is not only a super Sun-watching sentinel, but also very good at observing much more distant stars as well!

Thanks to @SungrazerComets for the heads-up on this novel nova!

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Light Echoes: The Re-Run Of The Eta Carinae “Great Eruption”

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In this modern age, we’re used to catching a favorite program at a later time. We use our DVR equipment and, not so long ago, a VCR to record now and watch later. Once upon a great time ago we relied upon a quaint customer called the “re-run” – the same program broadcast at a later date. However, a re-run can’t occur when it comes to astronomy event… Or can it? Oh, you’re gonna’ love this!

Way back in 1837, Eta Carinae had an event they called the “Great Eruption”. It was an outburst so powerful that it was observable in the southern night sky for 21 years. While it could be seen, sketched and recorded for astronomy posterity, one thing didn’t happen – and that was study with modern scientific instruments. But this great double star was about to do an even greater double-take as the light from the eruption continued away from Earth and on towards some dust clouds. Now, 170 years later, the “Great Eruption” has returned to us again in an effect known as a light echo. Because of its longer path, this re-run only took 17 decades to play again!

“When the eruption was seen on Earth 170 years ago, there were no cameras capable of recording the event,” explained the study’s leader, Armin Rest of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland. “Everything astronomers have known to date about Eta Carinae’s outburst is from eyewitness accounts. Modern observations with science instruments were made years after the eruption actually happened. It’s as if nature has left behind a surveillance tape of the event, which we are now just beginning to watch. We can trace it year by year to see how the outburst changed.”

As one of the largest and brightest systems in the Milky Way, Eta Carinae is at home some 7,500 light years from Earth. During the outburst, it shed around one solar mass for every 20 years it was active and it became the second brightest star in the sky. During that time, its signature twin lobes formed. Being able to study an event like this would help us greatly understand the lives of powerful, massive stars on the eve of destruction. Because it is so close, Eta has also been prime candidate for spectroscopic studies, giving us insight on its behavior, including the temperature and speed of the ejected material.

But there’s more…

Eta Carinae could possibly be considered more famous for its “misbehavior”. Unlike stars of its class, Eta is more of a Luminous Blue Variable – an uber bright star known for periodic outbursts. The temperature of the outflow from Eta Carinae’s central region, for example, is about 8,500 degrees Fahrenheit (5,000 Kelvin), which is much cooler than that of other erupting stars. “This star really seems to be an oddball,” Rest said. “Now we have to go back to the models and see what has to change to actually produce what we are measuring.”

Through the eyes of the U.S. National Optical Astronomy Observatory’s Blanco 4-meter telescope at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO) in Chile, Rest and the team first spotted the light echo in 2010 and then again in 2011 while comparing visible light observations. From there he quickly compared it with another set of CTIO observations taken in 2003 by astronomer Nathan Smith of the University of Arizona in Tucson and pieced together the 20 year old puzzle. What he saw was nothing short of amazing…

“I was jumping up and down when I saw the light echo,” said Rest, who has studied light echoes from powerful supernova blasts. “I didn’t expect to see Eta Carinae’s light echo because the eruption was so much fainter than a supernova explosion. We knew it probably wasn’t material moving through space. To see something this close move across space would take decades of observations. We, however, saw the movement over a year’s time. That’s why we thought it was probably a light echo.”

While the images would appear to move with time, this is only an “optical illusion” as each parcel of light information arrives at a different time. Follow up observations include more spectroscopy pinpointing the outflow’s speed and temperature – where ejected material was clocked at speed of roughly 445,000 miles an hour (more than 700,000 kilometers an hour) – a speed which matched computer modeling predictions. Rest’s group also cataloged changes in the light echo intensity using the Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope Network’s Faulkes Telescope South in Siding Spring, Australia. Their results were then compared the historic measurements during the actual event and the peak brightness findings matched!

You can bet the team is continuing to monitor this re-run very closely. “We should see brightening again in six months from another increase in light that was seen in 1844,” Rest said. “We hope to capture light from the outburst coming from different directions so that we can get a complete picture of the eruption.”

Original Story Source: HubbleSite News Release. For Further Reading: Nature Science Paper by A. Rest et al.

Last Minute TV Viewing Alert: Finding Life Beyond Earth

A new NOVA show airs tonight (October 19) in the US on public television, called “Finding Life Beyond Earth.” It includes interviews with many big names in planetary science and like any NOVA show, should be excellent. PBS has a great website that goes along with the show, and for those of you that don’t live in the US or get a public television station, PBS usually posts the videos of NOVA shows online later. Above is a trailer for the show. Check your local listings for when it will air; if you miss it first time around, local stations will sometimes re-air the show during the middle of the night!

Virtual Observatory Discovers New Cataclysmic Variable

Simulation of Intermediate Polar CV star

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In my article two weeks ago, I discussed how data mining large surveys through online observatories would lead to new discoveries. Sure enough, a pair of astronomers, Ivan Zolotukhin and Igor Chilingarian using data from the Virtual Observatory, has announced the discovery of a cataclysmic variable (CV).


Cataclysmic variables are often called “novae”. However, they’re not a single star. These stars are actually binary systems in which their interactions cause large increases in brightness as matter is accreted from a secondary (usually post main-sequence) star, onto a white dwarf. The accretion of matter piles up on the surface until the it reaches a critical density and undergoes a brief but intense phase of fusion increasing the brightness of the star considerably. Unlike type Ia supernovae, this explosion doesn’t meet the critical density required to cause a core collapse.

The team began by considering a list of 107 objects from the Galactic Plane Survey conducted by the Advanced Satellite for Cosmology and Astrophysics (ASCA, a Japanese satellite operating in the x-ray regime). These objects were exceptional x-ray emitters that had not yet been classified. While other astronomers have done targeted investigations of individual objects requiring new telescope time, this team attempted to determine whether any of the odd objects were CVs using readily available data from the Virtual Observatory.

Since the objects were all strong x-ray sources, they all met at least one criteria of being a CV. Another was that CV stars often are strong emitters for Hα since the eruptions often eject hot hydrogen gas. To analyze whether or not any of the objects were emitters in this regime, the astronomers cross referenced the list of objects with data from the Isaac Newton Telescope Photometric Hα Survey of the northern Galactic plane (IPHAS) using a color-color diagram. In the field of view of the IPHAS survey that overlapped with the region from the ASCA image for one of the objects, the team found an object that emitted strongly in the Hα. But in such a dense field and with such different wavelength regimes, it was difficult to identify the objects as the same one.

To assist in determining if the two interesting objects were indeed the same, or whether they just happened to lie nearby, the pair turned to data from Chandra. Since Chandra has much smaller uncertainty in the positioning (0.6 arcsecs), the pair was able to identify the object and determine that the interesting object from IPHAS was indeed the same one from the ASCA survey.

Thus, the object passed the two tests the team had devised for finding cataclysmic variables. At this point, followup observation was warranted. The astronomers used the 3.5-m Calar Alto telescope to conduct spectroscopic observations and confirmed that the star was indeed a CV. In particular, it looked to be a subclass in which the primary white dwarf star had a strong enough magnetic field to disrupt the accretion disk and the point of contact is actually over the poles of the star (this is known as a intermediate polar CV).

This discovery is an example of how discoveries are just waiting to happen with data that’s already available and sitting in archives, waiting to be explored. Much of this data is even available to the public and can be mined by anyone with the proper computer programs and know-how. Undoubtedly, as organization of these storehouses of data becomes organized in more user friendly manners, additional discoveries will be made in such a manner.

Long Anticipated Eruption of U Scorpii Has Begun

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Today, two amateur astronomers from Florida detected a rare outburst of the recurrent nova U Scorpii, which set in motion satellite observations by the Hubble Space Telescope, Swift and Spitzer. The last outburst of U Scorpii occurred in February of 1999. Observers around the planet will now be observing this remarkable system intensely for the next few months trying to unlock the mysteries of white dwarfs, interacting binaries, accretion and the progenitors of Type IA supernovae.

One of the remarkable things about this outburst is it was predicted in advance by Dr. Bradley Schaefer, Louisiana State University, so observers of the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO) have been closely monitoring the star since last February, waiting to detect the first signs of an eruption. This morning, AAVSO observers, Barbara Harris and Shawn Dvorak sent in notification of the outburst, sending astronomers scrambling to get ‘target of opportunity observations’ from satellites and continuous coverage from ground-based observatories. Time is a critical element, since U Sco is known to reach maximum light and start to fade again in one day.

There are only ten known recurrent novae (RNe). This, coupled with the fact that eruptions may occur only once every 10-100 years, makes observations of this rare phenomenon extremely interesting to astronomers. Recurrent novae are close binary stars where matter is accreting from the secondary star onto the surface of a white dwarf primary. Eventually this material accumulates enough to ignite a thermonuclear explosion that makes the nova eruption. ‘Classical novae’ are systems where only one such eruption has occurred in recorded history. They may indeed have recurrent eruptions, but these may occur thousands or millions of years apart. RNe have recurrence times of 10-100 years.

The difference is thought to be the mass of the white dwarf. The white dwarf must be close to the Chandrasekhar limit, 1.4 times the mass of the Sun. This higher mass makes for a higher surface gravity, which allows a relatively small amount of matter to reach the ignition point for a thermonuclear runaway. White dwarfs in RNe are thought to be roughly 1.2 times solar, or greater. The rate at which mass is accreted onto the white dwarf must be relatively high also. This is the only way to get enough material accumulated onto the white dwarf in such a short time, as compared to classical novae.

Recurrent novae are of particular interest to scientists because they may represent a stage in the evolution of close binary systems on their way to becoming Type IA supernovae. As mass builds up on the white dwarf they may eventually reach the tipping point, the Chandrasekhar limit. Once a white dwarf exceeds this mass it will collapse into a Type IA supernova.

A problem with this theory is the mass that is blown off the white dwarf in the erruption. If more mass is ejected during an eruption than has accreted during the previous interval between eruptions, the white dwarf will not be gaining mass and will not collapse into a Type IA supernovae. Therefore, scientists are eager to obtain all the data they can on these eruptions to determine what is happening with the white dwarf, the mass that is ejected and the rate of accretion.

AAVSO comparison sequence chart for U Sco

Observations from amateur astronomers are requested by the AAVSO. Data from backyard telescopes will be combined with data from mountaintop observatories and space telescopes to help unravel the secrets of these rare systems. AAVSO finder charts with comparison star sequences are available at: http://www.aavso.org/observing/charts/vsp/index.html?pickname=U%20Sco

Can the Recurrent Novae RS Oph Become Type Ia Supernovae?

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The classical scenario for creating Type Ia supernovae is a white dwarf star accreting mass from a nearby star entering the red giant phase. The growing red giant fills its Roche lobe and matter falls onto the white dwarf, pushing it over the Chandrasekhar limit causing a supernova. However, this assumes that the white dwarf is already right at the tipping point. In many cases, the white dwarf is well below the Chandrasekhar limit and matter piles up on the surface. It then ignites as a smaller nova blowing off most (if not all) of the material it worked so hard to collect.

A new paper by a group of European astronomers considers how this cycle will affect the overall accumulation of mass on the white dwarfs which undergo recurrent novae. In a previous, more simplistic 1D study (Yaron et al. 2005) simulations revealed that a net mass gain is possible if the white dwarf accumulates an average of 10-8 times the mass of the Sun each year. However, at this rate, the study suggested that most of the mass would be lost again in the resulting novae, and even a minuscule gain of 0.05 solar masses would take on the order of millions of years. If this was the case, then building up the required mass to explode as a Type Ia supernova would be out of reach for many white dwarfs since, if it took too much longer, the companion’s red giant phase would end and the dwarf would be out of material to gobble.

For their new study, the European team simulated the case of RS Ophiuchi (RS Oph) in a 3D situation. The simulation did not only take into consideration the mass loss from the giant onto the dwarf, but also included the evolution of the orbits (which would also influence the accretion rates) and varied rates for the velocity of the matter being lost from the giant. Unsurprisingly, the team found that for slower mass loss rates from the giant, the dwarf was able to accumulate more. “The accretion rates change from
around 10%  [of the mass of the red giant] in the slow case to roughly 2% in the fast case.”

What was not immediately obvious is that the loss of angular momentum as the giant shed its layers resulted in a decrease in the separation of the stars. In turn, this meant the giant and dwarf grew closer together and the accretion rate increased further. Overall they determined the current accretion rate for RS Oph was already higher than the 10-8 solar masses per year necessary for a net gain and due to the decreasing orbital distance, it would only improve. Since RS Oph’s mass is precipitously close to the 1.4 solar mass Chandrasekhar limit, they suggest, “RS Oph is a good candidate for a progenitor of an SN Ia.”

Amateur Spectroscopy

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Amateur astronomers are a unique species worthy of their own reality TV show. Their craftsmanship, resourcefulness, dedication, and passion is simply amazing. Many professional astronomers rely heavily on amateurs for quick spot checks, discovery followups, collaboration on research projects, the diverse locations of their telescopes and their ability/willingness to put in long hours of observation. So what is spectroscopy, and what do the amateur astronomers get up to?

Absorption spectroscopy is the study of the color and light spectrum of stars and galaxies. We all love our Hubble photos and pretty astro-photographs, however most of the real research and science comes from observing the light spectrum.

Robin Leadbeater’s LHIRESIII Spectrograph

Robin Leadbeater's telescope with LHRESIII spectrograph

Astronomers look at emission lines and absorption lines in the spectra to determine the make up of stars, nebulas and galaxies. Dopler effects, orbital behavior, elements of stars, even atmospheres can be determined by observing these absorption and emission lines. Scientists believe that a carbon dioxide absorption spectrum line signature in the spectrum of a star with a transiting exo-planet could eventually be the most exciting discovery – a possible indicator of extra-terrestrial life.

Why are amateurs interested?

I asked Ken Harrison the moderator of the Yahoo group – Astronomical Spectroscopy, why amateurs would be interested in absorption spectra?

“I see it as the “last frontier” for amateur astronomers. When you’ve taken the 100th image of the Orion nebulae – what do you do next?? It’s challenging, interesting and can give some scientific value to your work. Amateurs have successfully recorded the spectra of nova before the professionals and complimented other variable star work with observations of the changing spectral emissions of stars showing their Doppler shifts and atmospheric changes.”

Ken specializes in the spectra of Wolf-Rayet stars and is currently writing a book on amateur spectroscopy. Ken has been building his own spectrographs since 1992 and has used a variety of devices ranging from a simple star analyzer on a digital SLR camera to a sophisticated guided spectrograph.

A spectrograph allows light to pass through a narrow slit where it is then split into it’s spectra by passing through some sort of diffraction grating, before being captured on a CCD. The plate scale of the CCD then comes into play as angstroms per pixel instead of the usual (astrometric measure) arc/secs per pixel.

Rob Kaufman recently captured a Nova outburst Nova Scuti 2009 (V496 SCT) between the trees and clouds from his back yard.

Rob Kaufman spectrograph of Nova Scuti 2009 (V496 SCT) outburst
Credit: Rob Kaufman's spectrogram of Nova Scuti 2009 (V496 SCT) outburst

Italian amateur Fulvio Mete has achieved a spectrographic separation of tight binary Beta Aurigea. The double Ha absorption line is easily identifiable in his image taken with a 14inch Celestron. Some of the world’s best telescopes are unable to separate Beta Aurigea optically, so being able to do a spectrographic separation with a back yard telescope is a significant achievement.

Fulvio Metes spectrograph of Beta Aurigae
Fulvio Mete's spectrogram of Beta Aurigae

Perhaps there is no finer example of the quality of the spectroscopy done by amateurs than the current citizen science project on the eclipse of binary Epsilon Aurigae. Robin Leadbeater from Three Hills Observatory, a team member/contributor to the Citizen Sky project and avid amateur astronomer, has documented the changing spectra of Epsilon Aurigae, in particular monitoring the changing KI (neutral potassium) 7699 absorption line during the early stages of the ingress.

Robin Leadbeater's Spectrogram of KI 7699 absorption line in Epsilon Aurigae eclipse.
Robin Leadbeater's Spectrogram of KI 7699 absorption line in Epsilon Aurigae eclipse.

The eclipse happens every 27 years and this eclipse will be the first to be fully documented with advanced spectroscopy – clearly alot of that will be performed by skillful amateurs.

So what equipment do I need?

Ken Harrison comments that the equipment required is not necessarily expensive and it is a lot of fun.

“Luckily with the filter gratings available at reasonable prices (Star Analyser, Rainbow Optics etc) interested amateurs can start using their current equipment with minimal cost and outlay. Freeware programs like IRIS (C Buil) and VSpec (V Desnoux) allow the detailed analysis of spectra to be done without all the mathematics or detailed physics. As experience grows so do the questions. What do those absorption features mean? Why does this spectrum look completely different from that spectrum? How can I get benn resolution? Yes, it has its learning curve like any new adventure, but there are many others who have trodden the road before and only too willing to assist  – To boldly go where few amateurs have gone before – Spectroscopy!!!”

Dale Mais another dedicated amateur from Orange Grove, San Diego County has an excellent paper on qualitative and quantitative analysis that can be achieved by amateur astronomers.

The contribution of amateurs across all forms of astronomy is significant, and spectroscopy is no exception. If you want more information join one of the Yahoo groups or major amateur astronomy forums as they all have discussion groups with experienced people who are keen to help you get started.

Special thanks to Ken Harrison, Robin Leadbeater, Rob Kaufman, Fulvio Mete and Dale Mais for your photos and insight!