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A white dwarf star collecting hydrogen from a neighboring star

A nova (plural:novae) is a nuclear explosion that occurs when gravity from a white dwarf star collects hydrogen from a neighboring star.[1] This process starts nuclear fusion on the white dwarf, and a nuclear explosion results. If a white dwarf has a close companion star that overflows its Roche lobe, the white dwarf will steadily accrete gas from the companion's outer atmosphere. The companion may be a main sequence star, or one that is aging and expanding into a red giant. The captured gases consist primarily of hydrogen and helium. The gases are compacted on the white dwarf's surface by its intense gravity, compressed and heated to very high temperatures as additional material is drawn in. The white dwarf consists of degenerate matter, and so does not inflate as its temperature increases, while the accreted hydrogen is compressed upon the surface. The dependence of the hydrogen fusion rate on temperature and pressure means that it is only when it is compressed and heated at the surface of the white dwarf to a temperature of some 20 million kelvin that a nuclear fusion reaction occurs; at these temperatures, hydrogen burns via the CNO cycle.

While hydrogen fusion can occur in a stable manner on the surface of the white dwarf for a narrow range of accretion rates, for most binary system parameters the hydrogen burning is thermally unstable and rapidly converts a large amount of the hydrogen into other heavier elements in a runaway reaction,[1] liberating an enormous amount of energy, blowing the remaining gases away from the white dwarf's surface and producing an extremely bright outburst of light. The rise to peak brightness can be very rapid or gradual and is related to the speed class of the nova; after the peak, the brightness declines steadily.[2] The time taken for a nova to decay by 2 or 3 magnitudes from maximum optical brightness is used to classify a nova via its speed class. A fast nova will typically take less than 25 days to decay by 2 magnitudes and a slow nova will take over 80 days.[3]

In spite of their violence, the amount of material ejected in novae is usually only about 1⁄10,000 of a solar mass, quite small relative to the mass of the white dwarf. Furthermore, only five percent of the accreted mass is fused during the power outburst.[1] Nonetheless, this is enough energy to accelerate nova ejecta to velocities as high as several thousand kilometers per second—higher for fast novae than slow ones—with a concurrent rise in luminosity from a few times solar to 50,000–100,000 times solar.[1][4] In 2010 scientists using NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope were surprised to discover, for the first time, that a nova can also emit gamma-rays (>100 MeV).[5]

A white dwarf can potentially generate multiple novae over time as additional hydrogen continues to accrete onto its surface from its companion star. An example is RS Ophiuchi, which is known to have flared six times (in 1898, 1933, 1958, 1967, 1985, and 2006). Eventually, the white dwarf could explode as a type Ia supernova if it approaches the Chandrasekhar limit.

Occasionally a nova is bright enough and close enough to be conspicuous to the unaided eye. The brightest recent example was Nova Cygni 1975. This nova appeared on 29 August 1975, in the constellation Cygnus about five degrees north of Deneb and reached magnitude 2.0 (nearly as bright as Deneb). The most recent were V1280 Scorpii, which reached magnitude 3.7 on 17 February 2007, and Nova Delphini 2013. Nova Centauri 2013 was discovered 2 December 2013 and is so far the brightest nova of this millennium reaching magnitude 3.3.


  1. Rees, Martin (2008). Universe : The Definitive Visual Guide. New York: DK publishing. p. 278. ISBN 978-0-7566-3670-8 .