Star snapped before and after nova explosion

images of star explodingImage copyright
J Skowron / Warsaw University Observatory

Image caption

The nova eruption took place in May 2009

Astronomers have captured rare images of a tiny star before, during and after it exploded as a “classical nova”.

In this type of binary system, a white dwarf sucks gas from a much bigger partner star until it blows up – about every 10,000 to one million years.

Now, a Polish team has caught one in the act using a telescope in Chile.

The observations, reported in Nature, were made as part of a long-running sky survey that was originally aimed at detecting dark matter.

The consistent stream of images snapped for that project, the Optical Gravitational Lensing Experiment, allowed the researchers to go back and see what the star system looked like before the explosion brought it to their attention in May 2009.

Even though it is 20,000 light-years away – a terribly faint pinprick of light barely visible among brighter stars, even in magnified images – this was a rare opportunity to study the build-up and aftermath of a classical nova.

Image copyright
K Ulaczyk / Warsaw University Observatory

Image caption

This illustration shows the white dwarf, stealing gas from its partner star and exploding

“Thanks to our long-term observations, we observed the nova a few years before and a few years after the explosion,” Przemek Mróz, the study’s first author and a PhD student at the Warsaw University Astronomical Observatory, told the BBC.

“This is very unusual, because generally nova only attract attention when they are very bright – when they are in eruption.”

Hypothetical hibernation

These violent but poorly understood events begin with a white dwarf, the dead remnant of an average star like our Sun, is locked in tight orbit with a regular, active star.

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