Astronomers see a nova explosion on a white dwarf for the first time

Astronomers in Germany have spotted a fiery ‘nova explosion’ from a white dwarf for the very first time.

Researchers observed the event, thanks to data from the joint German-Russian eROSITA X-ray telescope, which is stationed in space about 900,000 miles away.

The X-ray flash – dubbed YZ Reticuli – completely overexposed the center of eROSITA’s detector, which records emitted photons.

White dwarfs are the incredibly dense remains of sun-sized stars after they exhaust their nuclear fuel, shrunk down to roughly the size of Earth.

Sometimes such dead stars flare back to life in a super hot explosion and produce a fireball of X-ray radiation.

These nova explosions occur from white dwarfs in a binary system – a system that consists of two stars that are gravitationally bound.

Astronomers have spotted a fiery explosion on a white dwarf, called a nova explosion, for the very first time.  Pictured is the researchers' recreation of the event, which occurred in 2020

Astronomers have spotted a fiery explosion on a white dwarf, called a nova explosion, for the very first time. Pictured is the researchers’ recreation of the event, which occurred in 2020

Overexposed image picked up of the nova explosion event by the eROSITA X-ray telescope, which launched in 2019

Overexposed image picked up of the nova explosion event by the eROSITA X-ray telescope, which launched in 2019

The researchers have now been able to observe such an explosion of X-ray light for the very first time, which came from a white dwarf in the constellation Reticulum.

WHAT IS A WHITE DWARF?

A white dwarf is the remains of a smaller star that has run out of nuclear fuel.

While large stars – those exceeding ten times the mass of our sun – suffer a spectacularly violent climax as a supernova explosion at the ends of their lives, smaller stars are spared such dramatic fates.

When stars like the sun come to the ends of their lives they exhaust their fuel, expand as red giants and later expel their outer layers into space.

The hot and very dense core of the former star – a white dwarf – is all that remains.

White dwarfs contain approximately the mass of the sun but have roughly the radius of Earth, meaning they are incredibly dense.

The gravity on the surface of a white dwarf is 350,000 times that of gravity on Earth.

They become so dense because their electrons are smashed together, creating what’s caused ‘degenerative matter’.

This means that a more massive white dwarf has a smaller radius than its less massive counterpart.

Although the observation was made by eROSITA back in July 2020, it has only just been detailed in a new study, led by astronomers at Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg (FAU) in Erlangen, Germany.

‘It was to some extent a fortunate coincidence, really,’ said study author Ole König at FAU. ‘We were really lucky.

‘These X-ray flashes last only a few hours and are almost impossible to predict, but the observational instrument must be pointed directly at the explosion at exactly the right time.’

eROSITA is floating in space at Lagrange Point 2 (L2), an area of ​​balanced gravity between the Sun and Earth about 900,000 miles (1.5 million km) away.

eROSITA has been surveying the sky for soft X-rays since 2019, although due to the breakdown of cooperation between Germany and Russia after the invasion of Ukraine, the instrument stopped collecting data on February 26, 2022.

Less than a year after it started operations, on July 7, 2020, eROSITA measured strong X-ray radiation in an area of ​​the sky that had been completely inconspicuous only four hours prior.

When the X-ray telescope surveyed the same position in the sky four hours later, the radiation had disappeared. Therefore, the the X-ray flash must have lasted less than eight hours.

X-ray explosions such as this were predicted by theoretical research back in a 1990 study but have never been observed directly until now.

These fireballs of X-rays occur on the surface of white dwarfs – stars that were originally comparable in size to the sun before using up most of their fuel made of hydrogen and later helium deep inside their cores and shrinking down.

White dwarfs, which are mainly made up of oxygen and carbon, are similar to Earth in size but contain a mass that can be similar to that of our sun.

Pictured here is eROSITA, a joint German-Russian X-ray telescope, prior to its launch in 2019

Pictured here is eROSITA, a joint German-Russian X-ray telescope, prior to its launch in 2019

eROSITA is stationed in space about 900,000 miles away at Lagrange Point 2 (L2), an area of ​​balanced gravity between the Sun and Earth (artist's depiction)

eROSITA is stationed in space about 900,000 miles away at Lagrange Point 2 (L2), an area of ​​balanced gravity between the Sun and Earth (artist’s depiction)

WHITE DWARF IS SPOTTED ‘SWITCHING ON AND OFF’ IN 30 MINUTES

A white dwarf star has been spotted ‘switching on and off’ in just 30 minutes, researchers reported in 2021.

Using data from NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), the team from Durham University witnessed the phenomena in the star system TW Pictoris, 1,400 light years from Earth.

They found that rather than taking months for the brightness to increase then drop again, it was only taking about half an hour, and was likely due to a fast magnetic field.

Read more: White dwarf star is spotted ‘switching on and off’ in 30 minutes

‘One way to picture these proportions is to think of the Sun being the same size as an apple, which means Earth would be the same size as a pin head orbiting around the apple at a distance of 10 meters,’ said Professor Jörn Wilms, also at FAU.

Trying to explain a white dwarf, the researchers said you should imagine shrinking an apple to the size of a pin head. This tiny particle would retain the comparatively large weight of the apple.

Just a teaspoon of matter from the inside of a white dwarf easily has the same mass as a large truck.

White dwarfs are so hot they glow white, but the radiation from them is so weak that it is difficult to detect them from Earth.

In a binary star system (a solar system with two stars), white dwarfs can be accompanied by another star that is still burning.

In this case, the enormous gravitational pull of the white dwarf draws hydrogen from the shell of the accompanying star.

In time, this hydrogen can collect to form a layer only a few meters thick on the surface of the white dwarf.

In this layer, the huge gravitational pull generates enormous pressure that is so great that it causes the star to reignite, leading to a huge explosion during which the layer of hydrogen is blown off.

The X-ray radiation of an explosion like this is what hit the detectors of eROSITA on July 7, 2020 producing an overexposed image.

White dwarfs are the incredibly dense remains of sun-sized stars after they exhaust their nuclear fuel, shrunk down to roughly the size of Earth (artist's impression)

White dwarfs are the incredibly dense remains of sun-sized stars after they exhaust their nuclear fuel, shrunk down to roughly the size of Earth (artist’s impression)

White dwarfs are so hot they glow white, but the radiation from them is so weak that it is difficult to detect them from Earth

White dwarfs are so hot they glow white, but the radiation from them is so weak that it is difficult to detect them from Earth

‘Using the model calculations we originally drew up while supporting the development of the X-ray instrument, we were able to analyze the overexposed image in more detail during a complex process to gain a behind the scenes view of an explosion of a white dwarf, or nova,” said Professor Wilms.

The explosion generated a fireball with a temperature of around 327,000 degrees Kelvin, making it around sixty times hotter than the Sun.

Since these novae run out of fuel quite quickly, they cool rapidly and the X-ray radiation becomes weaker until it eventually becomes visible light.

This visible light reached Earth half a day after the eROSITA detection and was observed by optical telescopes.

‘A seemingly bright star then appeared, which was actually the visible light from the explosion, and so bright that it could be seen on the night sky by the bare eye,’ said König.

Seemingly ‘new stars’ such as this one have been observed in the past and were named ‘nova stella’, or ‘new star’ on account of their unexpected appearance.

Since these novae are only visible after the X-ray flash, it is very difficult to predict such outbreaks and it is mainly down to chance when they hit the X-ray detectors.

The new study has been published in the journal Nature.

WHAT WILL HAPPEN TO EARTH WHEN THE SUN DIES?

Five billion years from now, it’s said the Sun will have grown into a red giant star, more than a hundred times larger than its current size.

Eventually, it will eject gas and dust to create an ‘envelope’ accounting for as much as half its mass.

The core will become a tiny white dwarf star. This will shine for thousands of years, illuminating the envelope to create a ring-shaped planetary nebula.

Five billion years from now, it's said the Sun will have grown into a red giant star, more than a hundred times larger than its current size

Five billion years from now, it’s said the Sun will have grown into a red giant star, more than a hundred times larger than its current size

While this metamorphosis will change the solar system, scientists are unsure what will happen to the third rock from the Sun.

We already know that our Sun will be bigger and brighter, so that it will probably destroy any form of life on our planet.

But whether the Earth’s rocky core will survive is uncertain.

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