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

A nova (pl. novae) is a cataclysmic nuclear explosion caused by the accretion of hydrogen onto the surface of a white dwarf star, which ignites and starts nuclear fusion in a runaway manner. Novae are not to be confused with supernovae or luminous red novae.


Occurrence rate, and astrophysical significance

Astronomers estimate that the Milky Way experiences roughly 30 to 60 novae per year, with a likely rate of about 40.[1] The number of novae discovered in the Milky Way each year is much lower, about 10.[2] Roughly 25 novae brighter than about magnitude 20 are discovered in the Andromeda Galaxy each year and smaller numbers are seen in other nearby galaxies.[3]

Spectroscopic observation of nova ejecta nebulae has shown that they are enriched in elements such as helium, carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, neon, and magnesium.[1] The contribution of novae to the interstellar medium is not great; novae supply only 1/50th as much material to the Galaxy as supernovae, and only 1/200th as much as red giant and supergiant stars.[1]

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.[4] 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.[1] Consequently, the interval is shorter for high-mass white dwarfs.[1]


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

  • NA: Fast novae, with a rapid brightness increase, followed by a brightness decline of 3 magnitudes — to circa 1/16 brightness — within 100 days.
  • 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: Recurrent novae, novae with more than one known explosion in historical times[5].

Historical significance

The astronomer Tycho Brahe observed the supernova SN 1572 in the constellation Cassiopeia, and described it in his book de stella nova (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 classical nova, the terms were considered interchangeable until the 1930s.[1]

Novae as distance indicators

Novae have some promise for use as standard candles. 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.[6]

Bright novae since 1890

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

Over 53 novae has been registered since 1890.

Recurrent novae

See also



  1. ^ a b c d e f Prialnik, Dina. "Novae", pp. 1846-56, in Paul Murdin, ed. Encyclopedia of Astronomy and Astrophysics. London: Institute of Physics Publishing Ltd and Nature Publishing Group, 2001. ISBN 1-56159-268-4
  2. ^
  3. ^
  4. ^ Seeds, Michael A. Horizons: Exploring the Universe, 5th ed. Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1998, ISBN 0-534-52434-6, p.194.
  5. ^ GCVS' vartype.txt at VizieR
  6. ^ Alloin, D., and W. Gieren, eds. Stellar Candles for the Extragalactic Distance Scale. Robert Gilmozzi and Massimo Della Valle, "Novae as Distance Indicators", pp. 229–241. Berlin: Springer, 2003. ISBN 3-540-20128-9.
  7. ^ AAVSO: Variable Star of the Season: U Scorpii

External links


Up to date as of January 15, 2010

Definition from Wiktionary, a free dictionary

See also nova






Nova (uncountable)

  1. (uncountable) Smoked Nova Scotia salmon.



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