Jan 19, 2019 | Updated: 08:39 AM EST

Astronomers Capture Stellar 'Fireball' on Camera

Oct 27, 2014 04:12 PM EDT


For the first time ever, astronomers have recorded a time lapse of a thermonuclear explosion emanating from a nova star. While this isn't quite as spectacular as a supernova itself, it's still quite a cosmic display. An international team has been studying the stellar 'fireball' as it expands from its star and have published the results of their study in the journal Nature.

These nova eruptions, as they are called, are considered a lesser sibling to the much more well known supernovae. According to Professor Peter Tuthill of the Intitude for Astronomy at the University of Sydney, "Although novae often play second fiddle in the popular imagination to their more famous big cousins - the supernovae - they are a truly remarkable celestial phenomenon."

Compact stars, also known as white dwarfs, create novae when in the presence of a nearby companion star. As the dwarf's intense gravity sucks matter from the companion star, its mass increases until a limit is reached, and that's when the fireball explodes out from the dwarf.

Tuthill likens such events to "one titanic hydrogen bomb hurling a fireball out into space and propelling a formerly dim, obscure star system into prominence as a nova in our night skies."

And these thermonuclear explosions are on a massive scale that is almost unimaginable, with the fireball consuming an area larger than the orbit of Jupiter in only a matter of two weeks. Just to give you some scale, Jupter's orbit radius from the Sun is over 400 million miles.

"The ferocity of the expansion is breathtaking, engulfing a region the size of the Earth's orbit within a day, and passing Jupiter's orbit in less than two weeks. Despite the enormous size of the fireball, at the remote distance to this star of fifteen thousand light years, it took very special technology to be able to image it at all," explained Tuthill.

Perhaps the most remarkable finding of this study is that after the fireball has finished exploding, the white dwarf star remains largely intact and can repeat the same violent process time after time.

The observations made by scientists during this study were better than ever before and allowed them to more accurately model the process by which the fireball is ejected, including the working mechanics on the surface of the white dwarf. According to what researchers observed the whole process now appears more complex than previously though.

The star observed is in the Delphinus constellation and erupted some 15,000 years ago, though the star itself is only some 14,800 light years from the center of our solar system.


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