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Image credit: Space Telescope Science Institute

Rare red nova explosion could add a star to the sky in 2022

A Calvin College astronomer has predicted the stellar event is just a few years away.

Jamie Rigg, @jmerigg
01.09.17 in Space
Space Telescope Science Institute

There is much still to learn about the universe, and red novas remain one of its mysteries. It's thought these explosive events, named for their red glow, are the result of binary stars finally merging after eons of cosmic courting. That's the prevailing theory, anyway, but the rare event has only been observed a handful of times. Our understanding of this stellar event, as well as the lifecycle of stars in general, could improve significantly if the prediction of Calvin College astronomer Larry Molnar proves true. He believes he's spotted a duo of stars that are on the cusp of merging, becoming a red nova in 2022, "give or take a year." It's not just exciting for the research community, though, as the explosion should be so energetic that we'll be able to see it in the night sky with the naked eye.

Molnar's prediction comes after years of studying a star called KIC 9832227. His research has led him to conclude this is not only a binary star, but a "contact binary," where the stars are close enough to share atmospheres. They are so close, in fact, that Molnar expects they are only a few years away from merging into a red nova. "It's a one-in-a-million chance that you can predict an explosion," says Molnar, and with this kind of advanced warning, astronomers have a unique opportunity to watch the event as it happens.

What's more, we shouldn't have to wait for a research paper or the documentary being made about Molnar's work to come out to learn if the prediction was correct. Instead, all we'll need to do is look up, specifically towards the Cygnus constellation. The amount of energy released by the red nova should add a new, noticeably bright star to the night sky, if only for a time.

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