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Artist's conception of a white dwarf, right, accreting hydrogen from the Roche lobe of its larger companion star

A nova (pl. novae or novas) is a transient astronomical event that causes the sudden appearance of a bright, apparently "new" star (hence the name "nova", Latin for "new") that slowly fades over weeks or months. All observed novae involve white dwarfs in close binary systems, but causes of the dramatic appearance of a nova vary, depending on the circumstances of the two progenitor stars. The main sub-classes of novae are classical novae, recurrent novae (RNe), and dwarf novae. They are all considered to be cataclysmic variable stars.

Classical nova eruptions are the most common type. This type is usually created in a close binary star system consisting of a white dwarf and either a main sequence, subgiant, or red giant star. If the orbital period of the system is a few days or less, the white dwarf is close enough to its companion star to draw accreted matter onto its surface, creating a dense but shallow atmosphere. This atmosphere, mostly consisting of hydrogen, is heated by the hot white dwarf and eventually reaches a critical temperature, causing ignition of rapid runaway fusion. The sudden increase in energy expels the atmosphere into interstellar space, creating the envelope seen as visible light during the nova event. In past centuries such an event was thought to be a new star. A few novae produce short-lived nova remnants, lasting for perhaps several centuries.

A recurrent nova involves the same processes as a classical nova, except that the nova event repeats in cycles of a few decades or less as the companion star again feeds the dense atmosphere of the white dwarf after each ignition, as in the star T Coronae Borealis.

Under certain conditions, mass accretion can eventually trigger runaway fusion that destroys the white dwarf rather than merely expelling its atmosphere. In this case, the event is usually classified as a Type Ia supernova.

Novae most often occur in the sky along the path of the Milky Way, especially near the observed Galactic Center in Sagittarius; however, they can appear anywhere in the sky. They occur far more frequently than galactic supernovae, averaging about ten per year in the Milky Way. Most are found telescopically, perhaps only one every 12–18 months reaching naked-eye visibility. Novae reaching first or second magnitude occur only a few times per century. The last bright nova was V1369 Centauri, which reached 3.3 magnitude on 14 December 2013.[1]


During the sixteenth century, astronomer Tycho Brahe observed the supernova SN 1572 in the constellation Cassiopeia. He described it in his book De nova stella (Latin for "concerning the new star"), giving rise to the adoption of the name nova. In this work he argued that a nearby object should be seen to move relative to the fixed stars, and thus the nova had to be very far away. Although SN 1572 was later found to be a supernova and not a nova, the terms were considered interchangeable until the 1930s.[2] After this, novae were called classical novae to distinguish them from supernovae, as their causes and energies were thought to be different, based solely on the observational evidence.

Although the term "stella nova" means "new star", novae most often take place on white dwarfs, which are remnants of extremely old stars.

Stellar evolution of novae[edit]

Nova Eridani 2009 (apparent magnitude ~8.4)

Evolution of potential novae begins with two main sequence stars in a binary system. One of the two evolves into a red giant, leaving its remnant white dwarf core in orbit with the remaining star. The second star—which may be either a main-sequence star or an aging giant—begins to shed its envelope onto its white dwarf companion when it overflows its Roche lobe. As a result, the white dwarf steadily captures matter from the companion's outer atmosphere in an accretion disk, and in turn, the accreted matter falls into the atmosphere. As the white dwarf consists of degenerate matter, the accreted hydrogen is unable to expand even though its temperature increases. Runaway fusion occurs when the temperature of this atmospheric layer reaches ~20 million K, initiating nuclear burning via the CNO cycle.[3]

If the accretion rate is just right, hydrogen fusion may occur in a stable manner on the surface of the white dwarf, giving rise to a supersoft X-ray source, but for most binary system parameters, the hydrogen burning is thermally unstable and rapidly converts a large amount of the hydrogen into other, heavier chemical elements in a runaway reaction,[2] liberating an enormous amount of energy. This blows the remaining gases away from the surface of the white dwarf and produces an extremely bright outburst of light.

The rise to peak brightness may be very rapid, or gradual; after the peak, the brightness declines steadily.[4] The time taken for a nova to decay by 2 or 3 magnitudes from maximum optical brightness is used for grouping novae into speed classes. Fast novae typically will take less than 25 days to decay by 2 magnitudes, while slow novae will take more than 80 days.[5]

Despite its violence, usually the amount of material ejected in a nova is only about 110,000 of a solar mass, quite small relative to the mass of the white dwarf. Furthermore, only five percent of the accreted mass is fused during the power outburst.[2] Nonetheless, this is enough energy to accelerate nova ejecta to velocities as high as several thousand kilometers per second—higher for fast novae than slow ones—with a concurrent rise in luminosity from a few times solar to 50,000–100,000 times solar.[2][6] In 2010 scientists using NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope discovered that a nova also can emit gamma rays (>100 MeV).[7]

Potentially, a white dwarf can generate multiple novae over time as additional hydrogen continues to accrete onto its surface from its companion star. Where this repeated flaring is observed, the object is called a recurrent nova. An example is RS Ophiuchi, which is known to have flared seven times (in 1898, 1933, 1958, 1967, 1985, 2006, and 2021). Eventually, the white dwarf can explode as a Type Ia supernova if it approaches the Chandrasekhar limit.

Occasionally, novae are bright enough and close enough to Earth to be conspicuous to the unaided eye. The brightest recent example was Nova Cygni 1975. This nova appeared on 29 August 1975, in the constellation Cygnus about 5 degrees north of Deneb, and reached magnitude 2.0 (nearly as bright as Deneb). The most recent were V1280 Scorpii, which reached magnitude 3.7 on 17 February 2007, and Nova Delphini 2013. Nova Centauri 2013 was discovered 2 December 2013 and so far is the brightest nova of this millennium, reaching magnitude 3.3.

Helium novae[edit]

A helium nova (undergoing a helium flash) is a proposed category of nova event that lacks hydrogen lines in its spectrum. The absence of hydrogen lines may be caused by the explosion of a helium shell on a white dwarf. The theory was first proposed in 1989, and the first candidate helium nova to be observed was V445 Puppis, in 2000.[8] Since then, four other novae have been proposed as helium novae.[9]

Occurrence rate and astrophysical significance[edit]

Astronomers have estimated that the Milky Way experiences roughly 25 to 75 novae per year.[10] The number of novae actually observed in the Milky Way each year is much lower, about 10,[11] probably because distant novae are obscured by gas and dust absorption.[11] As of 2019, 407 probable novae had been recorded in the Milky Way.[11] In the Andromeda Galaxy, roughly 25 novae brighter than about 20th magnitude are discovered each year, and smaller numbers are seen in other nearby galaxies.[12]

Spectroscopic observation of nova ejecta nebulae has shown that they are enriched in elements such as helium, carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, neon, and magnesium.[2] Classical nova explosions are galactic producers of the element lithium.[13][14] The contribution of novae to the interstellar medium is not great; novae supply only 150 as much material to the galaxy as do supernovae, and only 1200 as much as red giant and supergiant stars.[2]

Observed recurrent novae such as RS Ophiuchi (those with periods on the order of decades) are rare. Astronomers theorize, however, that most, if not all, novae recur, albeit on time scales ranging from 1,000 to 100,000 years.[15] The recurrence interval for a nova is less dependent on the accretion rate of the white dwarf than on its mass; with their powerful gravity, massive white dwarfs require less accretion to fuel an eruption than lower-mass ones.[2] Consequently, the interval is shorter for high-mass white dwarfs.[2]

V Sagittae is unusual in that the time of its next eruption can be predicted fairly accurately; it is expected to recur in approximately 2083, plus or minus about 11 years.[16]


Novae are classified according to the light curve decay speed, referred to as either type A, B, C and R,[17] or using the prefix "N":

  • NA: fast novae, with a rapid brightness increase, followed by a brightness decline of 3 magnitudes—to about 116 brightness—within 100 days.[18]
  • NB: slow novae, with a brightness decline of 3 magnitudes in 150 days or more.
  • NC: very slow novae, also known as symbiotic novae, staying at maximum light for a decade or more and then fading very slowly.
  • NR/RN: recurrent novae, where two or more eruptions separated by 80 years or less have been observed.[19] These are generally also fast.


GK Persei: Nova of 1901

Some novae leave behind visible nebulosity, material expelled in the nova explosion or in multiple explosions.[20]

Novae as distance indicators[edit]

Novae have some promise for use as standard candle measurements of distances. For instance, the distribution of their absolute magnitude is bimodal, with a main peak at magnitude −8.8, and a lesser one at −7.5. Novae also have roughly the same absolute magnitude 15 days after their peak (−5.5). Nova-based distance estimates to various nearby galaxies and galaxy clusters have been shown to be of comparable accuracy to those measured with Cepheid variable stars.[21]

Recurrent novae[edit]

A recurrent nova (RNe) is an object that has been seen to experience repeated nova eruptions. The recurrent nova typically brightens by about 9 magnitudes, whereas a classic nova may brighten by more than 12 magnitudes.[22]

Although it is estimated that as many as a quarter of nova systems experience multiple eruptions, only ten recurrent novae (listed below) have been observed in the Milky Way.[23]

Several extragalactic recurrent novae have been observed in the Andromeda Galaxy (M31) and the Large Magellanic Cloud. One of these extragalactic novae, M31N 2008-12a, erupts as frequently as once every 12 months.

On 20 April 2016, the Sky & Telescope website reported a sustained brightening of T Coronae Borealis from magnitude 10.5 to about 9.2 starting in February 2015. A similar event had been reported in 1938, followed by another outburst in 1946.[24] By June 2018, the star had dimmed slightly but still remained at an unusually high level of activity. In March or April 2023, it dimmed to magnitude 12.3.[25] A similar dimming occurred in the year before the 1945 outburst, indicating that it will likely erupt between March and September 2024.[26]

Full name
Distance (ly) Magnitude
Days to drop
3 magnitudes
from peak
Known eruption years Interval (years) Years since latest eruption
CI Aquilae K. Reinmuth 8590±830 8.6–16.3 40 1917, 1941, 2000 24–59 24
V394 Coronae Australis L. E. Erro 17000±3000[27] 7.2–19.7 6 1949, 1987 38 36
T Coronae Borealis J. Birmingham 2987±75 2.5–10.8 6 1217, 1787, 1866, 1946 80 78
IM Normae I. E. Woods 9800±1600[28] 8.5–18.5 70 1920, 2002 ≤82 22
RS Ophiuchi W. Fleming 8740±850 4.8–11 14 1898, 1907, 1933, 1958, 1967, 1985, 2006, 2021 9–26 2
V2487 Ophiuchi K. Takamizawa (1998) 20900±5200[29] 9.5–17.5 9 1900, 1998 98 26
T Pyxidis H. Leavitt 9410±780 6.4–15.5 62 1890, 1902, 1920, 1944, 1967, 2011 12–44 13
V3890 Sagittarii H. Dinerstein 16000[30] 8.1–18.4 14 1962, 1990, 2019 28–29 4
U Scorpii N. R. Pogson 31300±2000[31] 7.5–17.6 2.6 1863, 1906, 1917, 1936, 1979, 1987, 1999, 2010, 2022, 8–43 2
V745 Scorpii L. Plaut 25400±2600[31] 9.4–19.3 7 1937, 1989, 2014 25–52 10

Extragalactic novae[edit]

Nova in Andromeda Galaxy

Novae are relatively common in the Andromeda Galaxy (M31); several dozen novae (brighter than apparent magnitude +20) are discovered in M31 each year.[12] The Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams (CBAT) has tracked novae in M31, M33, and M81.[32]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Nova Centauri 2013: Another bright, naked-eye nova | aavso.org". www.aavso.org. Retrieved 2 November 2020.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h Prialnik, Dina (2001). "Novae". In Paul Murdin (ed.). Encyclopedia of Astronomy and Astrophysics. Institute of Physics Publishing/Nature Publishing Group. pp. 1846–1856. ISBN 978-1-56159-268-5.
  3. ^ M.J. Darnley; et al. (10 February 2012). "On the Progenitors of Galactic Novae". The Astrophysical Journal. 746 (61): 61. arXiv:1112.2589. Bibcode:2012ApJ...746...61D. doi:10.1088/0004-637x/746/1/61. S2CID 119291027.
  4. ^ AAVSO Variable Star Of The Month: May 2001: Novae Archived 6 November 2003 at the Wayback Machine
  5. ^ Warner, Brian (1995). Cataclysmic Variable Stars. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-41231-5.
  6. ^ Zeilik, Michael (1993). Conceptual Astronomy. John Wiley & Sons. ISBN 978-0-471-50996-7.
  7. ^ JPL/NASA (12 August 2010). "Fermi detects 'shocking' surprise from supernova's little cousin". PhysOrg. Retrieved 15 August 2010.
  8. ^ Kato, Mariko; Hachisu, Izumi (December 2005). "V445 Puppis: Helium Nova on a Massive White Dwarf". The Astrophysical Journal. 598 (2): L107–L110. arXiv:astro-ph/0310351. Bibcode:2003ApJ...598L.107K. doi:10.1086/380597. S2CID 17055772.
  9. ^ Rosenbush, A. E. (17–21 September 2007). Klaus Werner; Thomas Rauch (eds.). "List of Helium Novae". Hydrogen-Deficient Stars. 391. Eberhard Karls University, Tübingen, Germany (published July 2008): 271. Bibcode:2008ASPC..391..271R.
  10. ^ Shafter, A.W. (January 2017). "The Galactic Nova Rate Revisited". The Astrophysical Journal. 834 (2): 192–203. arXiv:1606.02358. Bibcode:2017ApJ...834..196S. doi:10.3847/1538-4357/834/2/196. S2CID 118652484.
  11. ^ a b c "CBAT List of Novae in the Milky Way". IAU Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams.
  12. ^ a b "M31 (Apparent) Novae Page". IAU Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams. Retrieved 24 February 2009.
  13. ^ Arizona State University (1 June 2020). "Class of stellar explosions found to be galactic producers of lithium". EurekAlert!. Retrieved 2 June 2020.
  14. ^ Starrfield, Sumner; et al. (27 May 2020). "Carbon–Oxygen Classical Novae Are Galactic 7Li Producers as well as Potential Supernova Ia Progenitors". The Astrophysical Journal. 895 (1): 70. arXiv:1910.00575. Bibcode:2020ApJ...895...70S. doi:10.3847/1538-4357/ab8d23. S2CID 203610207.
  15. ^ Seeds, Michael A. (1998). Horizons: Exploring the Universe (5th ed.). Wadsworth Publishing Company. p. 194. ISBN 978-0-534-52434-0.
  16. ^ "Binary star V Sagittae to explode as very bright nova by century's end". phys.org. Retrieved 20 January 2020.
  17. ^ "Overview: Long-term visual light curves | aavso". www.aavso.org. Retrieved 14 July 2024.
  18. ^ "Ritter Cataclysmic Binaries Catalog (7th Edition, Rev. 7.13)". High Energy Astrophysics Science Archive Research Center. 31 March 2010. Retrieved 25 September 2010.
  19. ^ "GCVS Variability Types and Distribution Statistics of Designated Variable Stars According to their Types of Variability". VizieR archive server, Strasbourg astronomical Data Center (CDS).
  20. ^ Liimets, T.; Corradi, R.L.M.; Santander-García, M.; Villaver, E.; Rodríguez-Gil, P.; Verro, K.; Kolka, I. (2014). "A Dynamical Study of the Nova Remnant of GK Persei / Stella Novae: Past and Future Decades.". Stellar Novae: Past and Future Decades. ASP Conference Series. Vol. 490. pp. 109–115. arXiv:1310.4488. Bibcode:2014ASPC..490..109L.
  21. ^ Robert, Gilmozzi; Della Valle, Massimo (2003). "Novae as Distance Indicators". In Alloin, D.; Gieren, W. (eds.). Stellar Candles for the Extragalactic Distance Scale. Springer. pp. 229–241. ISBN 978-3-540-20128-1.
  22. ^ Schaefer, Bradley E. (2010). "Comprehensive Photometric Histories of All Known Galactic Recurrent Novae". The Astrophysical Journal Supplement Series. 187 (2): 275–373. arXiv:0912.4426. Bibcode:2010ApJS..187..275S. doi:10.1088/0067-0049/187/2/275. S2CID 119294221.
  23. ^ Pagnotta, Ashley; Schaefer, Bradley E. (2014). "Identifying and Quantifying Recurrent Novae Masquerading as Classical Novae". The Astrophysical Journal. 788 (2): 164. arXiv:1405.0246. Bibcode:2014ApJ...788..164P. doi:10.1088/0004-637X/788/2/164. S2CID 118448146.
  24. ^ "Is T CrB About to Blow its Top?". Sky & Telescope website. 20 April 2016. Retrieved 6 August 2017.
  25. ^ Schaefer, B.E.; Kloppenborg, B.; Waagen, E.O. "Announcing T CrB pre-eruption dip". AAVSO. American Association of Variable Star Observers. Retrieved 18 January 2024.
  26. ^ Todd, Ian. "T Coronae Borealis nova event guide and how to prepare". Sky at Night Magazine. BBC. Retrieved 18 March 2024.
  27. ^ Hachisu, Izumi; Kato, Mariko (September 2000). "A Theoretical Light-Curve Model for the Recurrent Nova V394 Coronae Australis". The Astrophysical Journal. 540 (1): 447–451. arXiv:astro-ph/0003471. Bibcode:2000ApJ...540..447H. doi:10.1086/309338. Retrieved 3 May 2024.
  28. ^ Patterson, Joseph; Kemp, Jonathan; Monard, Berto; Myers, Gordon; de Miguel, Enrique; Hambsch, Franz-Josef; Warhurst, Paul; Rea, Robert; Dvorak, Shawn; Menzies, Kenneth; Vanmunster, Tonny; Roberts, George; Campbell, Tut; Starkey, Donn; Ulowetz, Joseph; Rock, John; Seargeant, Jim; Boardman, James; Lemay, Damien; Cejudo, David; Knigge, Christian (1 January 2022). "IM Normae: The Death Spiral of a Cataclysmic Variable?". The Astrophysical Journal. 924 (1): 27. arXiv:2010.07812. Bibcode:2022ApJ...924...27P. doi:10.3847/1538-4357/abec87.
  29. ^ Rodríguez-Gil, Pablo; Corral-Santana, Jesús M; Elías-Rosa, N; Gänsicke, Boris T; Hernanz, Margarita; Sala, Gloria (20 October 2023). "The orbital period of the recurrent nova V2487 Oph revealed". Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. 526 (4): 4961–4975. arXiv:2310.05877. doi:10.1093/mnras/stad3124. Retrieved 3 May 2024.
  30. ^ Anupama, G. C.; Sethi, S. (1 July 1994). "Spectroscopy of the recurrent nova V3890 Sagittarii 18 d after the 1990 outburst". Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. 269 (1): 105–109. doi:10.1093/mnras/269.1.105. Retrieved 3 May 2024.
  31. ^ a b Hachisu, Izumi; Kato, Mariko (1 April 2016). "THE UBV COLOR EVOLUTION OF CLASSICAL NOVAE. II. COLOR–MAGNITUDE DIAGRAM". The Astrophysical Journal Supplement Series. 223 (2): 21. arXiv:1602.01195. Bibcode:2016ApJS..223...21H. doi:10.3847/0067-0049/223/2/21.
  32. ^ Bishop, David. "Extragalactic Novae". International Supernovae Network. Retrieved 11 September 2010.

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