A "new star" appears in the sky

Posted by Michael Bakich
on Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Here’s how Nova Delphini 2013 appeared in a photograph taken August 16 through a 12-inch telescope. // Efrain Morales Rivera
On August 14, Japanese amateur astronomer Koichi Itagaki discovered an exploding star within the boundaries of the constellation Delphinus the Dolphin. Now known as Nova Delphini 2013, the object has brightened since its discovery. At that time, it was a little fainter than the dimmest star the human eye can see. Now, however, it lies within range of naked eyes from a dark site. And even from suburban locations, observers using binoculars or small telescopes can see the star easily.

The word nova is Latin, and it means “new.” Thousands of years ago, pre-telescopic observers referred to such objects as stella novae — “new stars.” These objects appeared to the naked eye, seemingly out of nowhere, and then faded back to invisibility after days, weeks, or sometimes months.

The red cross on this star chart indicates the position of Nova Delphini 2013. At this time of year, the constellation Delphinus is in the sky all night long. // Astronomy: Richard Talcott and Roen Kelly
Today astronomers know that a nova is an explosion that results when hydrogen from a nearby star builds up around a white dwarf — the Earth-sized core of a star that once created energy the same way our Sun does. The hydrogen eventually explodes and causes the star to brighten by millions or even billions of times, often outshining the entire galaxy that houses it.

Currently, Nova Delphini 2013 is shining between magnitude 4.5 and magnitude 5.0, which makes it a bit brighter than the faintest star in the Little Dipper star figure. So if you can see all the stars in the Little Dipper from your observing location, you’ll be able to see the nova. That said, binoculars will help a lot.

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