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Artist's conception of a white dwarf accreting hydrogen from a larger companion

A nova (plural novae or novas) or classical nova (CN or plural CNe) is an astronomical event that causes the sudden appearance of a bright "new" star, that slowly fades from view over several weeks or many months. Novae should not be confused with other more energetic astronomical phenomena known as supernovae (SNe), which catastrophically destroys massive stars or white dwarfs.

Causes of their dramatic appearance varies depending on the circumstances of their progenitor stars, but they have in common to be close binary stars, where one component is a white dwarf, or that both stars are red dwarfs in the process of merging. Several main sub-classes of novae exist, based on their many different scenarios, being classical novae, recurrent novae (RNe), dwarf novae, luminous red novae. They are together under a group of variable stars collectively known as cataclysmic variable stars, which share some common properties as close binary systems.

Classical novae eruptions are the most common type of novae. They are likely created in a close binary star system consisting of a white dwarf and either a main sequence, sub-giant or red giant star. When the orbital period falls in the range of several days to one day, the white dwarf is sufficiently close to its companion star to start drawing accreted matter onto the white dwarf's surface, which creates a dense but thin atmosphere. This mostly hydrogen atmosphere is thermally heated from the hot white dwarf star, which eventually reaches a critical temperature, and results in a rapid runaway ignition by fusion. From the dramatic and sudden energies created, the now hydrogen-burnt atmosphere is then dramatically expelled into interstellar space, whose brightened envelope is seen as the visible light created from the nova event. A few novae produce short-lived nova remnants,[1] lasting perhaps several centuries. Recurrent nova processes are the same as the classical nova, except that the fusion ignition can be repeated because the companion star can again feed the dense atmosphere of the white dwarf.

Occurrences of novae mostly occur in the sky along the path of the Milky Way, but usually concentrate near the observed galactic centre in Sagittarius. However, it is also quite possible for them to appear anywhere in the sky. They are far more frequent than galactic supernovae, presently averaging about ten per year. The majority are found telescopically, with few reaching naked-eye visibility, perhaps averaging about once every year to eighteen months. Novae reaching 1st or 2nd magnitude occur only several times per century. The last bright nova was V1369 Centauri reaching 3.3 magnitude on 14 December 2013.


During the 16th 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 name nova. In this work he argued that a nearby object should be seen to move relative to the fixed stars, and that the nova had to be very far away. Though this was a supernova and not a nova, the terms were considered interchangeable until the 1930s.[2] After this, novae were classified as classical novae to distinguishing them from supernovae, as their causes and energies were though to be different based solely in the observational evidence.

Stellar evolution of novae[edit]

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 captures matter in an accretion disk steadily from the companion's outer atmosphere, and in turn, falls into the atmosphere. As the white dwarf consists of degenerate matter, so the accreted hydrogen does not inflate but its temperature increases. Rapid, an all at once, uncontrolled fusion occurs when the temperature of this atmospheric layer reaches ~20 million Kelvins, initiating nuclear burning via the CNO cycle.[3]

GK Persei: Nova of 1901

Hydrogen fusion can occur in a stable manner on the surface of the white dwarf for a narrow range of accretion rates, but for most binary system parameters the hydrogen burning is thermally unstable and rapidly converts a large amount of the hydrogen into other heavier elements in a runaway reaction,[2] liberating an enormous amount of energy. This blows the remaining gases away from the white dwarf's surface and produces an extremely bright outburst of light. Rise to peak brightness may be very rapid or gradual. This is related to the speed class of the nova; yet after the peak, the brightness declines steadily.[4] Time taken for a nova to decay by around 2 or 3 magnitudes from maximum optical brightness is used to classify novae via its speed class. Fast nova will typically take less than 25 days to decay by 2 magnitudes while slow nova will take over 80 days.[5]

In spite of their violence, the amount of material ejected in novae is usually 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 were surprised to discover, for the first time, that a nova can also emit gamma-rays (>100 MeV).[7]

A white dwarf can potentially generate multiple novae over time as additional hydrogen continues to accrete onto its surface from its companion star. An example is RS Ophiuchi, which is known to have flared six times (in 1898, 1933, 1958, 1967, 1985, and 2006). Eventually, the white dwarf could explode as a Type Ia supernova if it approaches the Chandrasekhar limit.

Occasionally novae are bright enough and close enough 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 five 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 is so far 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 events that lacks hydrogen lines in its spectrum. This may be caused by the explosion of a helium shell on a white dwarf. The theory was first proposed by Kato, Saio, and Hachisu in 1989. The first candidate helium nova to be observed was V445 Puppis in 2000.[8] Since then, four other novae explosions have been proposed as helium novae.[9]

Occurrence rate and astrophysical significance[edit]

Astronomers estimate that the Milky Way experiences roughly 30 to 60 novae per year, but a recent examination has found the likely improved rate of about 50±27.[10] The number of novae discovered in the Milky Way each year is much lower, about 10,[11] which is likely explained by gas and dust absorption that is obscuring distant novae by the Milky Way itself.[12] Roughly 25 novae brighter than about 20th magnitude are discovered in the Andromeda Galaxy each year and smaller numbers are seen in other nearby galaxies.[13]

Spectroscopic observation of nova ejecta nebulae has shown that they are enriched in elements such as helium, carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, neon, and magnesium.[2] 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]

Recurrent novae like RS Ophiuchi (those with periods on the order of decades) are rare. Astronomers theorize however that most, if not all, novae are recurrent, albeit on time scales ranging from 1,000 to 100,000 years.[14] The recurrence interval for a nova is less dependent on the white dwarf's accretion rate than on its mass; with their powerful gravity, massive white dwarfs require less accretion to fuel an outburst than lower-mass ones.[2] Consequently, the interval is shorter for high-mass white dwarfs.[2]


Novae are classified according to the light curve development speed, so in

  • NA: Fast novae, with a rapid brightness increase, followed by a brightness decline of 3 magnitudes — to about 116 brightness — within 100 days.[15]
  • NB: Slow novae, with a 3 magnitudes decline in 150 days or more.
  • NC: Very slow novae, staying at maximum light for a decade or more, fading very slowly. It is possible that NC type novae are objects differing physically very much from normal novae, for example planetary nebulae in formation, exhibiting Wolf-Rayet star like features.
  • NR/RN: Recurrent novae, novae with two or more outbursts separated by 10–80 years have been observed.[16]

Novae as distance indicators[edit]

Nova Eridani 2009 (apparent magnitude ~8.4) during a full moon

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). Comparisons of nova-based distance estimates to various nearby galaxies and galaxy clusters with those done with Cepheid variable stars have shown them to be of comparable accuracy.[17]

Bright novae since 1890[edit]

Over 53 novae have been registered since 1890.

Recurrent novae[edit]

Recurrent novae (RNe) are objects that have been seen to experience multiple nova eruptions. There are some ten known galactic recurrent novae.[18] The recurrent nova typically brightens by about 8.6 magnitude, whereas a classic nova brightens by more than 12 magnitude.[18] The ten known recurrent novae are listed below.

Full name
Days to drop
3 magnitude
from peak
Known outburst years
CI Aquilae K.Reinmuth 8.6–16.3  ? 2000, 1941, 1917
V394 Coronae Australis L.E.Erro 7.2–19.7  ? 1987, 1949
T Coronae Borealis J.Birmingham 2.5–10.8 6 1946, 1866
IM Normae I.E.Woods 8.5–18.5  ? 2002, 1920
RS Ophiuchi W.Fleming 4.8–11 14 2006, 1985, 1967, 1958, 1933, 1898
V4287 Ophiuchi K.Takamizawa 9.5–17.5  ? 1998, 1900
T Pyxidis H.Leavitt 6.4–15.5 62 2011, 1967, 1944, 1920, 1902, 1890
V3890 Sagittarii H.Dinerstein 8.1–18.4  ? 1990, 1962
U Scorpii N.R.Pogson 7.5–17.6 2.6 2010, 1999, 1987, 1979, 1936, 1917, 1906, 1863
V745 Scorpii L.Plaut 9.4–19.3  ? 2014, 1989, 1937

Extragalactic novae[edit]

Messier 31 Image by NASA

Novae in the Andromeda galaxy (M31) are relatively common.[13] There are roughly several dozen novae discovered (brighter than about apparent magnitude 20) in M31 each year.[13] The Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams (CBAT) tracks novae in M31, M33, and M81.[19]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ 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.". ASP Conference Series, Proceedings of a conference held 4–8 February 2013 at the Pavilion Clock Tower, Cape Town, South Africa. Edited by P.A. Woudt and V.A.R.M. Ribeiro, 2014. 490: 109–115. Bibcode:2014ASPC..490..109L. arXiv:1310.4488Freely accessible. doi:10.1086/109995. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h Prialnik, Dina (2001). "Novae". In Paul Murdin. Encyclopedia of Astronomy and Astrophysics. Institute of Physics Publishing/Nature Publishing Group. pp. 1846–1856. ISBN 1-56159-268-4. 
  3. ^ M.J. Darnley; et al. (10 February 2012). "On the Progenitors of Galactic Novae". The Astrophysical Journal. 746 (61). Bibcode:2012ApJ...746...61D. arXiv:1112.2589Freely accessible. doi:10.1088/0004-637x/746/1/61. Retrieved 10 February 2015. 
  4. ^ AAVSO Variable Star Of The Month: May 2001: Novae
  5. ^ Warner, Brian (1995). Cataclysmic Variable Stars. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-41231-5. 
  6. ^ Zeilik, Michael (1993). Conceptual Astronomy. John Wiley & Sons. ISBN 0-471-50996-5. 
  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 2003). "V445 Puppis: Helium Nova on a Massive White Dwarf". The Astrophysical Journal. 598 (2): L107–L110. Bibcode:2003ApJ...598L.107K. arXiv:astro-ph/0310351Freely accessible. doi:10.1086/380597. 
  9. ^ Rosenbush, A. E. (17–21 September 2007). Klaus Werner; Thomas Rauch, eds. "List of Helium Novae". proceedings, Hydrogen-Deficient Stars ASP Conference Series. Eberhard Karls University, Tübingen, Germany (published July 2008). 391. Bibcode:2008ASPC..391..271R. 
  10. ^ Shafter, A.W. (January 2017). "The Galactic Nova Rate Revisited". The Astrophysical Journal. 834 (2): 192–203. Bibcode:2017ApJ...834..196S. arXiv:1606.02358Freely accessible. doi:10.3847/1538-4357/834/2/196. 
  11. ^ "CBAT List of Novae in the Milky Way". IAU Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams. 
  12. ^ "CBAT List of Novae in the Milky Way". IAU Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams. 
  13. ^ a b c "M31 (Apparent) Novae Page". IAU Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams. Retrieved 2009-02-24. 
  14. ^ Seeds, Michael A. (1998). Horizons: Exploring the Universe (5th ed.). Wadsworth Publishing Company. p. 194. ISBN 0-534-52434-6. 
  15. ^ "Ritter Cataclysmic Binaries Catalog (7th Edition, Rev. 7.13)". High Energy Astrophysics Science Archive Research Center. 31 March 2010. Retrieved 2010-09-25. 
  16. ^ GCVS' vartype.txt at VizieR
  17. ^ Robert, Gilmozzi; Della Valle, Massimo (2003). "Novae as Distance Indicators". In Alloin, D.; Gieren, W. Stellar Candles for the Extragalactic Distance Scale. Springer. pp. 229–241. ISBN 3-540-20128-9. 
  18. ^ a b Schaefer, Bradley E. (2009). "Comprehensive Photometric Histories of All Known Galactic Recurrent Novae". arXiv:0912.4426Freely accessible [astro-ph.SR]. 
  19. ^ Bishop, David. "Extragalactic Novae". International Supernovae Network. Retrieved 2010-09-11. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Payne-Gaposchkin, C. (1957). The Galactic Novae. North Holland Publishing Co. 
  • Hernanz, M.; Josè, J. (2002). Classical Nova Explosions. American Institute of Physics. 
  • Bode, M.F.; Evans, E. (2008). Classical Novae. Cambridge University Press. 

External links[edit]