Skywatchers may be in for an extraordinary visual treat five years from now, as scientists are predicting a binary star explosion in 2022, a “red nova” so explosive that it will be visible to the average person, and not only astronomers with high-powered telescopes.
According to a report from the International Business Times, researchers are expecting two contact binary stars – stars that orbit each other within the same atmosphere – to merge with each other and explode sometime in 2022. The explosion, which will take place some 1,800 light years away in the constellation Cygnus, will result in the creation of a red nova that people will be able to view without the need for any telescopes, binoculars, or similar tools.
The prediction was originally made in 2015 by astronomer Larry Molnar, a professor at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and reiterated as he spoke at Friday’s American Astronomical Society meeting in Grapevine, Texas. In a statement posted on the official Calvin College website, Molnar stressed how unusual it is for anyone to be able to predict a binary star explosion.
“It’s a one-in-a-million chance that you can predict an explosion. It’s never been done before.”
Calvin College dean for research and scholarship Matt Walhout underscored in the institution’s press statement the importance of Molnar’s prediction in the field of astronomy, should it ring true.
“If Larry’s prediction is correct, his project will demonstrate for the first time that astronomers can catch certain binary stars in the act of dying, and that they can track the last few years of a stellar death spiral up to the point of final, dramatic explosion,”
In an interview with Vox, Molnar further explained the peculiarities behind his big prediction for 2022, saying that it’s a known fact that binary stars do merge, but scientists have yet to comprehend what causes this phenomenon to take place. He added that it’s likely that the stars have already merged and exploded, though it will only be in 2022 – though possibly a year or so earlier or later – when the light will be visible to people.
The pair of stars forecasted to merge in a binary star explosion in 2022 have been codenamed KIC 9832227, and had been noticed by scientists for some time prior to the prediction. But it was in 2013 when Apache Point Observatory astronomer Karen Kinemuchi observed some changes in the stars’ brightness. This piqued Molnar’s interest, as he and research assistant Daniel Van Noord analyzed the brightness data and concluded that the stars made a contact binary pair. Molnar had also observed a shortening orbital period, suggesting that the stars in the binary were approaching each other.
Taking the recently-gathered data, Molnar and his colleagues compared the new information against data from a 2008 event, where the contact binary codenamed V1309 Scorpii created a red nova after the stars’ orbital period had also decreased progressively. After performing another two tests to rule out potential alternative interpretations of the data, the team concluded that a red nova involving KIC 9832227 may indeed be possible in about five years’ time.
“Bottom line is we really think our merging star hypothesis should be taken seriously right now and we should be using the next few years to study this intensely so that if it does blow up we will know what led to that explosion.”
Should the binary star explosion take place in 2022 or thereabouts as is being predicted, observers should be able to see the two stars approach each other to the point where their outer atmospheres are slightly touching each other. The smaller star, which is said to be a third of our sun’s size, will then “take a dive” into the larger star, which is estimated to be 40 percent more massive than the sun. Vox notes that this merger, which will create an even more massive star, will cause “a lot of energy to blow off” the stars’ outer layers, thus creating the red nova phenomenon – a reddish light that should be visible to us on Earth.
With five years to go before the expected binary star explosion, Molnar is guardedly optimistic, having told Vox that his prediction is “just a prediction.” But if it does come true, he added that it would “be the most satisfying event of my scientific life.”
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