Astronomers spot one of the brightest novae ever

Novae occur when a dead star flares back to life in the sky. These events signal a white dwarf, the remnant of a star like our Sun, suddenly and briefly reigniting fusion in its thin atmosphere as it pulls mass from a companion star in a binary system. The event is called a nova because people once thought they were completely new stars in the sky. Now we know they’re not, but these transient phenomena are just as astronomically intriguing, giving us a glimpse at the dynamic interactions in binary star systems. And recently, astronomers just spotted one of the brightest yet.

The new “star” (or, in truth, the recent flare-up of a long-dead star) occurred in the Small Magellanic Cloud (SMC), a dwarf galaxy gravitationally bound to our larger Milky Way. The SMC lies 200,000 light-years away and is visible from the Southern Hemisphere, where ground-based telescopes caught the event in conjunction with NASA’s orbiting Swift Gamma-Ray Burst Mission. SMCN 2016-10a, the nova’s designation, was spotted in October 2016; a paper aptly titled “Multiwavelength observations of nova SMCN 2016-10a – Probably the brightest nova in the SMC and one of the brightest on record,” has been accepted for publication in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

The work outlines comprehensive observations of the nova — as advertised, the brightest ever seen in the SMC or any other galaxy not the Milky Way — from multiple observatories using numerous instruments. The data, which includes details on the white dwarf’s composition, temperature, magnetic field, and brightness over time, gives astronomers a treasure trove of data to work with. “The present observations provide the kind of coverage in time and spectral color that is needed to make progress for gaining understanding of a nova in a neighboring galaxy,” said Paul Kuin of the Mullard Space Science Laboratory, University College London, a collaborator on the work, in a press release. “Observing the…

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