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The Blaze Star Beckons: NASA Sees A Rare Nova Erupt in the Northern Crown

NASA said the upcoming nova eruption of T CrB serves as a powerful reminder of the dynamic nature of the universe.


A red giant star and white dwarf orbit each other in this animation of a nova similar to T Coronae Borealis. The red giant is a large sphere in shades of red, orange, and white, with the side facing the white dwarf the lightest shades. The white dwarf is hidden in a bright glow of white and yellows, which represent an accretion disk around the star. A stream of material, shown as a diffuse cloud of red, flows from the red giant to the white dwarf. When the red giant moves behind the white dwarf, a nova explosion on the white dwarf ignites, creating a ball of ejected nova material shown in pale orange. After the fog of material clears, a small white spot remains, indicating that the white dwarf has survived the explosion.
NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center

Gazing skyward, roughly 3,000 light-years away, lies a captivating cosmic drama unfolding within the constellation Corona Borealis, the Northern Crown. Here, a binary star system known as T Coronae Borealis, or T CrB for short, ignites the imagination of astronomers, explained NASA. Nicknamed the “Blaze Star” for its fiery outbursts, T CrB presents a rare spectacle – a recurrent nova with the potential to inspire a new generation of stargazers.

“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime event that will create a lot of new astronomers out there, giving young people a cosmic event they can observe for themselves, ask their own questions, and collect their own data,” said Dr. Rebekah Hounsell, an assistant research scientist specializing in nova events at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. “It’ll fuel the next generation of scientists.”

T CrB is a captivating example of a binary system, where two celestial bodies are locked in a gravitational embrace. One member is a white dwarf, a collapsed star about the size of Earth but harboring a mass comparable to our Sun. This stellar remnant represents the burnt-out core of a once-vibrant star, its life extinguished long ago. Its companion is a red giant, a more flamboyant partner nearing the end of its stellar existence. The red giant, in the twilight of its life, is slowly being stripped of its hydrogen fuel, the vital ingredient for stellar fusion, by the relentless gravitational pull of its white dwarf neighbor.

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This cosmic ballet isn’t just a slow, silent drama. T CrB’s story takes a dramatic turn with its periodic outbursts, transforming it from a slow burn to a breathtaking display of stellar fireworks. The hydrogen siphoned from the red giant doesn’t simply accumulate harmlessly on the white dwarf’s surface. Instead, it acts like a combustible fuel, steadily building pressure and heat. Eventually, this volatile situation reaches a critical point, triggering a thermonuclear explosion on the white dwarf’s surface. This eruption, known as a nova, is powerful enough to blast away all the accumulated hydrogen in a brilliant flash, earning T CrB its fiery moniker, the “Blaze Star.”

It’s crucial to differentiate between T CrB’s outbursts and a far more catastrophic stellar event – a supernova. A supernova marks the final, titanic explosion that obliterates certain dying stars in a spectacular but violent display. Thankfully, T CrB’s explosions are a different breed. These events, known as novae, leave the white dwarf intact. The accumulated hydrogen gets flung back out into space in a dazzling display, a cosmic firework show. The beauty of this cycle lies in its repeatability. Over time, the red giant will continue to lose hydrogen, and the white dwarf will patiently gather more fuel until, on average every 80 years for T CrB, the whole process culminates in another spectacular nova eruption. This cycle can continue for tens or even hundreds of thousands of years, offering astronomers a captivating window into the complex and dynamic lives of stars.

“There are a few recurrent novae with very short cycles,” explains Dr. Robert Hounsell, an astronomer, “but typically, we don’t often see a repeated outburst in a human lifetime, and rarely one so relatively close to our own system.” This makes T CrB’s upcoming nova a truly special event. “It’s incredibly exciting to have this front-row seat to observe a stellar phenomenon that has captivated astronomers for centuries,” he adds.

The upcoming nova eruption of T CrB presents a unique opportunity for both professional and amateur astronomers. The relative proximity of the system, combined with the predicted brightness of the outburst, makes it a prime target for observation. This event has the potential to ignite a passion for astronomy in a new generation of stargazers, allowing them to witness a stellar drama unfold in real-time. Researchers around the globe will be able to train their telescopes on T CrB, studying the evolution of the nova and gleaning valuable insights into the behavior of binary star systems and the complex processes of stellar evolution.

NASA said the upcoming nova eruption of T CrB serves as a powerful reminder of the dynamic nature of the universe. It’s a testament to the ongoing stellar dance playing out across the cosmos, a dance filled with both beauty and violence. As we witness the fiery outburst of the Blaze Star, we gain a deeper appreciation for the delicate balance that governs the lives of stars, and perhaps even a glimpse into the potential fate of our own Sun in the distant future.



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