The awakening of a classical nova from hibernation

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Abstract

Cataclysmic variable stars—novae, dwarf novae, and nova-likes—are close binary systems consisting of a white dwarf star (the primary) that is accreting matter from a low-mass companion star (the secondary)1. From time to time such systems undergo large-amplitude brightenings. The most spectacular eruptions, with a ten-thousandfold increase in brightness, occur in classical novae and are caused by a thermonuclear runaway on the surface of the white dwarf2. Such eruptions are thought to recur on timescales of ten thousand to a million years3. In between, the system's properties depend primarily on the mass-transfer rate: if it is lower than a billionth of a solar mass per year, the accretion becomes unstable and the matter is dumped onto the white dwarf during quasi-periodic dwarf nova outbursts4. The hibernation hypothesis5 predicts that nova eruptions strongly affect the mass-transfer rate in the binary, keeping it high for centuries after the event6. Subsequently, the mass-transfer rate should significantly decrease for a thousand to a million years, starting the hibernation phase. After that the nova awakes again—with accretion returning to the pre-eruption level and leading to a new nova explosion. The hibernation model predicts cyclical evolution of cataclysmic variables through phases of high and low mass-transfer. The theory gained some support from the discovery of ancient nova shells around the dwarf novae Z Camelopardalis7 and AT Cancri8, but direct evidence for considerable mass-transfer changes prior, during and after nova eruptions has not hitherto been found. Here we report long-term observations of the classical nova V1213 Cen (Nova Centauri 2009) covering its pre- and post-eruption phases and precisely documenting its evolution. Within the six years before the explosion, the system revealed dwarf nova outbursts indicative of a low mass-transfer rate. The post-nova is two orders of magnitude brighter than the pre-nova at minimum light with no trace of dwarf nova behaviour, implying that the mass-transfer rate increased considerably as a result of the nova explosion.

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