SA astronomers make explosive finding

11 October 2017 - 11:39 By Tanya Farber
The newly discovered very bright nova, named SMCN 2016-10a, is located toward the Small Magellanic Cloud (SMC), a small galaxy near the Milky Way, at a distance of around 200,000 light years away from us.
The newly discovered very bright nova, named SMCN 2016-10a, is located toward the Small Magellanic Cloud (SMC), a small galaxy near the Milky Way, at a distance of around 200,000 light years away from us.
Image: Supplied by SAAO

A group of South African astronomers has helped discover one of the brightest novas ever observed.

A nova is an astronomical event when a star suddenly shines very brightly and then fades again over a few months. It results from a dead star (a 'white dwarf') pulling material from a close companion star onto its surface. The pressure builds up until there is an eruption so massive‚ it is equivalent to a million hydrogen bombs going off.

Now‚ a new study led by Elias Aydi at the South African Astronomical Observatory and University of Cape Town is about to be published‚ detailing the optical observations that were made from South African soil.

They come from the Southern African Large Telescope which is based in 'big-sky country' in Sutherland in the Northern Cape.

According to Dr Daniel Cunnama‚ the outreach astronomer at the SAAO‚ the beauty of a nova is from the "brightness of the star increasing dramatically and sometimes appearing as a new naked-eye star in the night sky".

That's why it is called a nova‚ which means 'new star'- but it is in fact from activities of a dying star.

The newly discovered very bright nova is located in a small galaxy near the Milky Way‚ some 200 000 lightyears away from us. It was first detected in October last year in Argentina‚ but much data about it was missing despite several attempts by astronomers around the world to observe it more closely.

Cunnama said "nova events are frequently observed in the Milky Way with a rate of around 35 eruptions per year‚ but they are much rarer" in the smaller galaxy where this one has been discovered.

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