HomeAstronomy & SpaceAstronomyA weird star produced the fastest nova on record

A weird star produced the fastest nova on record

Astronomers are buzzing after witnessing the world’s fastest nova. The unusual occurrence drew the attention of scientists to an even more unusual star. They may discover answers not only to the nova’s many puzzling characteristics, but also to larger questions about the chemistry of our solar system, the death of stars, and the evolution of the universe as they study it.

The research team, led by Arizona State University Regents Professor Sumner Starrfield, University of Minnesota Professor Charles Woodward, and The Ohio State University Research Scientist Mark Wagner, co-authored a report published today in the American Astronomical Society’s Research Notes.

A nova is a bright light explosion caused by a two-star system. Every nova is caused by a white dwarf (a star’s very dense leftover core) and a nearby companion star. The white dwarf draws matter from its companion over time, which falls onto the white dwarf. This material is heated by the white dwarf, resulting in an uncontrolled reaction that releases a burst of energy. The explosion propels matter at high speeds, which we see as visible light.

The bright nova usually fades after a few weeks or so. On June 12, 2021, the nova V1674 Hercules burst bright enough to be seen with the naked eye, but it faded away in less than a day. It was as if someone turned on and off a flashlight.

Nova events at this speed are uncommon, making this nova a valuable research subject.

“It was only about one day,” says Starrfield, an astrophysicist in ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration. “The previous fastest nova we studied back in 1991, V838 Herculis, which declined in about two or three days.”

While the astronomy world was watching V1674 Hercules, other researchers discovered that its speed was not its only unusual feature. The light and energy it emits are also pulsing, similar to the sound of a reverberating bell.

Every 501 seconds, there is a wobble visible in both visible light waves and X-rays. The nova is still wobbly a year after it exploded, and it appears to have been going on for even longer. Starrfield and his colleagues have continued to investigate this anomaly.

“The most unusual thing about this oscillation is that it was visible before the outburst, but it was also visible when the nova was about 10 magnitudes brighter,” says Wagner, who is also the head of science at the Large Binocular Telescope Observatory, which was used to observe the nova. “A mystery that people are attempting to solve is what is driving this periodicity that you would see in the system over that range of brightness.”

The team also noticed something strange while monitoring the matter ejected by the nova explosion—some kind of wind is shaping the flow of material into space surrounding the system, which may be dependent on the positions of the white dwarf and its companion star.

Though the fastest nova is (literally) spectacular, it is worth further investigation because novae can reveal important information about our solar system and even the universe as a whole.

During a nova explosion, a white dwarf collects and alters matter, then seasons the surrounding space with new material. It is an important part of the matter cycle in space. Novae ejected materials will eventually form new stellar systems. Such events also contributed to the formation of our solar system, ensuring that Earth is more than just a lump of carbon.

“We’re always trying to figure out how the solar system formed and where the chemical elements in the solar system came from,” says Starrfield. “One of the things we’ll learn from this nova is how much lithium was produced as a result of the explosion. We can now say with certainty that these types of explosions produced a significant portion of the lithium on Earth.”

Because a white dwarf star does not always lose all of its collected matter during a nova explosion, it gains mass with each cycle. This would eventually cause it to become unstable, and the white dwarf could explode into a type 1a supernova, one of the brightest events in the universe. Because each type 1a supernova achieves the same level of brightness, they are referred to as standard candles.

“Standard candles are so bright that we can see them from far away in the universe. We can ask questions about how the universe is accelerating or about the overall three-dimensional structure of the universe by observing how the brightness of light changes “According to Woodward. “This is one of the fascinating reasons we investigate some of these systems.”

Furthermore, novae can tell us more about how stars in binary systems die, which is a poorly understood process. They also serve as living laboratories for scientists to observe nuclear physics in action and put theoretical concepts to the test.

The nova caught astronomers off guard. It was unknown to scientists until Seidji Ueda, a Japanese amateur astronomer, discovered and reported it.

Citizen scientists, like modern technology, are becoming increasingly important in the field of astronomy. Even though the nova is now too faint for other types of telescopes to see, the team can still monitor it thanks to the Large Binocular Telescope’s wide aperture and the observatory’s other equipment, which includes a pair of multi-object double spectrographs and the exceptional PEPSI high-resolution spectrograph.

They intend to look into the cause of the outburst and the processes that led to it, as well as the reason for its record-breaking decline, the forces driving the observed wind, and the source of its pulsing brightness.

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