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.

As It Turns Out, We Really Are All Starstuff

“The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars,” Carl Sagan famously said in his 1980 series Cosmos. “We are made of starstuff.”

And even today, observations with NASA’s airborne SOFIA observatory are supporting this statement. Measurements taken of the dusty leftovers from an ancient supernova located near the center our galaxy – aka SNR Sagittarius A East – show enough “starstuff” to build our entire planet many thousands of times over.

“Our observations reveal a particular cloud produced by a supernova explosion 10,000 years ago contains enough dust to make 7,000 Earths,” said research leader Ryan Lau of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York – the same school, by the way, where Carl Sagan taught astronomy and space science.

Composite image of SNR Sgr A East showing infrared SOFIA data outlined in white against X-ray and radio observations. (NASA/CXO/Herschel/VLA/Lau et al.)
Composite image of SNR Sgr A East showing infrared SOFIA data outlined in white against X-ray and radio observations. (NASA/CXO/Herschel/VLA/Lau et al.)

While it’s long been known that supernovae expel enormous amounts of stellar material into space, it wasn’t understood if clouds of large-scale dust could withstand the immense shockwave forces of the explosion.

NASA's Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy 747SP aircraft flies over Southern California's high desert during a test flight in 2010. Credit: NASA/Jim Ross
NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) aircraft (Credit: NASA/Jim Ross)

These observations, made with the joint NASA/DLR-developed Faint Object InfraRed Camera for the SOFIA Telescope (FORCAST) instrument, provide key “missing-link” evidence that dust clouds do in fact survive intact, spreading outward into interstellar space to seed the formation of new systems.

Interstellar dust plays a vital role in the evolution of galaxies and the formation of new stars and protoplanetary discs – the orbiting “pancakes” of material around stars from which planets (and eventually everything on them) form.

The findings may also answer the question of why young galaxies observed in the distant universe possess so much dust; it’s likely the result of frequent supernova explosions from massive early-generation stars.

Read more in a NASA news release here.

Source: NASA, Cornell, and Caltech 

“We have begun to contemplate our origins: starstuff pondering the stars; organized assemblages of ten billion billion billion atoms considering the evolution of atoms; tracing the long journey by which, here at least, consciousness arose.”

– Carl Sagan, Cosmos (1980)

New Binocular Nova Discovered in Sagittarius

Looks like the Sagittarius Teapot’s got a new whistle. On March 15, John Seach of Chatsworth Island, NSW, Australia discovered a probable nova in the heart of the constellation using a DSLR camera and fast 50mm lens. Checks revealed no bright asteroid or variable star at the location. At the time, the new object glowed at the naked eye limit of magnitude +6, but a more recent observation by Japanese amateur Koichi Itagaki puts the star at magnitude +5.3, indicating it’s still on the rise. 

A 5th magnitude nova’s not too difficult to spot with the naked eye from a dark sky, and binoculars will show it with ease. Make a morning of it by setting up your telescope for a look at Saturn and the nearby double star Graffias (Beta Scorpii), one of the prettiest, low-power doubles in the summer sky.

Close-in map of Sagittarius showing the nova's location (R.A. 18h36m57s Decl. -28°55'42") and neighboring stars with their magnitudes. For clarity, the decimal points are omitted from the magnitudes, which are from the Tycho catalog. Source: Stellarium
Close-in map of Sagittarius showing the nova’s location (R.A. 18h36m57s Decl. -28°55’42”) and neighboring stars with their magnitudes. For clarity, the decimal points are omitted from the magnitudes, which are from the Tycho catalog. Source: Stellarium

Nova means “new”, but novae aren’t fresh stars coming to life but an explosion occurring 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. 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 swirling about in a disk around the dwarf, it’s funneled down to the star’s 150,000 F° surface where gravity compacts and heats the gas until 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 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 pulls material into a disk around itself, some of which is funneled to the surface and ignites in a nova explosion. Credit: NASA

Regular nova observers may wonder why so many novae are discovered in the Sagittarius-Scorpius Milky Way region. There are so many more stars in the dense star clouds of the Milky Way, compared to say the Big Dipper or Canis Minor, that the odds go up of seeing a relatively rare event like a stellar explosion is likely to happen there than where the stars are scattered thinly. Given this galactic facts of life, that means most of will have to set our alarms to spot this nova. Sagittarius doesn’t rise high enough for a good view until the start of morning twilight. For the central U.S., that’s around 5:45-6 a.m.

A now-you-see-it-now-you-don't animation showing the nova field before and after discovery. Credit: Ernesto Guido and Nick Howes
A now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t animation showing the nova field before and after discovery. Credit: Ernesto Guido and Nick Howes

Find a location with a clear view to the southeast and get oriented at the start of morning twilight or about 100 minutes before sunrise. Using the maps, locate Sagittarius below and to the east (left) of Scorpius. Once you’ve arrived, point your binoculars into the Teapot and star-hop to the nova’s location. I’ve included visual magnitudes of neighboring stars to help you estimate the nova’s brightness and track its changes in the coming days and weeks.

Whether it continues to brighten or soon begins to fade is anyone’s guess at this point. That only makes going out and seeing it yourself that much more enticing.

New photo of Nova Sagittarii. Note the pink color from hydrogen alpha emission. Credit: Erneso Guido and Nick Howes
New photo of Nova Sagittarii. Note the “warm” color from hydrogen alpha emission. Credit: Erneso Guido and Nick Howes

UPDATE: A spectrum of the object was obtained with the Liverpool Telescope March 16 confirming that the “new star” is indeed a nova. Gas has been clocked moving away from the system at more than 6.2 million mph (10 million kph)!

Astrophoto: Clouds Above, Clouds Below

What a gorgeous view of the dusty cloud of the Milky Way arch hovering over clouds low on the horizon here on Earth! Fellow NASA Solar System Ambassador Greg Redfern took this image of our galactic center in the constellation Sagittarius.

“If you have dark skies look to the south to see this grand spectacle,” Greg said via email. “It stretches across the entire sky.”

Greg shot the image during the Almost Heaven Star Party, an annual astronomy event sponsored by the Northern Virginia Astronomy Club. The star party is held in Spruce Knob, West Virginia, which boasts the darkest skies in the mid-Atlantic region of the US.

Want to get your astrophoto featured on Universe Today? Join our Flickr group or send us your images by email (this means you’re giving us permission to post them). Please explain what’s in the picture, when you took it, the equipment you used, etc.

Astrophoto: Capturing Pluto with a Spoon

Last week, we encouraged those of you with a decent sized backyard telescope (and a little patience) to try and spot tiny dwarf planet Pluto, which was at opposition over this past weekend.

One of our favorite astrophotographers, John Chumack, did just that using the “Sagittarius Spoon” to zero-in on Pluto’s location.

“Most astronomers are familiar with the Great Tea Pot of Sagittarius, but just above the Teapot’s Handle is the Sagittarius Spoon!” John said via email. His annotated image, above, shows the spoon and the arrow points to Pluto.

See a non-annotated version, below, and try to also spot some very familiar deep sky objects in this field of view:

A non-annotated version of the Sagittarius Spoon and Pluto on 06-29-2014 from Dexter, Iowa. Credit and copyright: John Chumack.
A non-annotated version of the Sagittarius Spoon and Pluto on 06-29-2014 from Dexter, Iowa. Credit and copyright: John Chumack.

Can you see:
Globular Clusters M22, M28, NGC-6717
Open Star Clusters M25, M18
Emission Nebulae M17 The Swan or Omega Nebula & M16 The Eagle Nebula
M24 The Sagittarius Star Cloud, (also awesome in binoculars, John says)

John used a modified Canon 40D DSLR & 50mm lens @F5.6, ISO 1600 for a Single 4 minute exposure while tracking on a CG-4 Mount. And friends from Dexter, Iowa provided the view!

Update:

Larry McNish from the Calgary Centre of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada also sent in two images of Pluto at opposition. All the details are on the images, but they emphasize just how difficult capturing Pluto can be:

Pluto two days before opposition on July 2, 2014.  Credit and copyright: Larry McNish, Calgary Centre of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada.
Pluto two days before opposition on July 2, 2014. Credit and copyright: Larry McNish, Calgary Centre of the
Royal Astronomical Society of Canada.
Pluto, four days after opposition on July 8, 2014. Credit and copyright: Larry McNish, Calgary Centre of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada.
Pluto, four days after opposition on July 8, 2014. Credit and copyright: Larry McNish, Calgary Centre of the
Royal Astronomical Society of Canada.

See David Dickinson’s great tips on how to spot Pluto for yourself here.

Want to get your astrophoto featured on Universe Today? Join our Flickr group or send us your images by email (this means you’re giving us permission to post them). Please explain what’s in the picture, when you took it, the equipment you used, etc.

Our Galaxy’s Supermassive Black Hole is a Sloppy Eater

Like most galaxies, our Milky Way has a dark monster in its middle: an enormous black hole with the mass of 4 million Suns inexorably dragging in anything that comes near. But even at this scale, a supermassive black hole like Sgr A* doesn’t actually consume everything that it gets its gravitational claws on — thanks to the Chandra X-ray Observatory, we now know that our SMB is a sloppy eater and most of the material it pulls in gets spit right back out into space.

(Perhaps it should be called the Cookie Monster in the middle.*)

New Chandra images of supermassive black hole Sagittarius A*, located about 26,000 light-years from Earth, indicate that less than 1% of the gas initially within its gravitational grasp ever reaches the event horizon. Instead, much of the gas is ejected before it gets near the event horizon and has a chance to brighten in x-ray emissions.

The new findings are the result of one of the longest campaigns ever performed with Chandra, with observations made over 5 weeks’ time in 2012.

Read more: Chandra Stares Deep into the Heart of Sagittarius A*

“This new Chandra image is one of the coolest I’ve ever seen,” said study co-author Sera Markoff of the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands. “We’re watching Sgr A* capture hot gas ejected by nearby stars, and funnel it in towards its event horizon.”

As it turns out, the wholesale ejection of gas is necessary for our resident supermassive black hole to capture any at all. It’s a physics trade-off.

“Most of the gas must be thrown out so that a small amount can reach the black hole”, said co-author Feng Yuan of Shanghai Astronomical Observatory in China. “Contrary to what some people think, black holes do not actually devour everything that’s pulled towards them. Sgr A* is apparently finding much of its food hard to swallow.”

X-ray image of Sgr A*
X-ray image of Sgr A*

If it seems odd that such a massive black hole would have problems slurping up gas, there are a couple of reasons for this.

One is pure Newtonian physics: to plunge over the event horizon, material captured — and subsequently accelerated — by a black hole must first lose heat and momentum. The ejection of the majority of matter allows this to occur.

The other is the nature of the environment in the black hole’s vicinity. The gas available to Sgr A* is very diffuse and super-hot, so it is hard for the black hole to capture and swallow it. Other more x-ray-bright black holes that power quasars and produce huge amounts of radiation have much cooler and denser gas reservoirs.

Illustration of gas cloud G2 approaching Sgr A* (ESO/MPE/M.Schartmann/J.Major)
Illustration of gas cloud G2 approaching Sgr A* (ESO/MPE/M.Schartmann/J.Major)

Located relatively nearby, Sgr A* offers scientists an unprecedented view of the feeding behaviors of such an exotic astronomical object. Currently a gas cloud several times the mass of Earth, first spotted in 2011, is moving closer and closer to Sgr A* and is expected to be ripped apart and partially consumed in the coming weeks. Astronomers are eagerly awaiting the results.

“Sgr A* is one of very few black holes close enough for us to actually witness this process,” said Q. Daniel Wang of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, who led the study.

Watch Black Holes: Monsters of the Cosmos

Source: Chandra press release. Read the team’s paper here.

Image credits: X-ray: NASA/UMass/D.Wang et al., IR: NASA/STScI

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*Any resemblance of Sgr A* to an actual Muppet, real or fictitious, is purely coincidental.