Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


Colliding Stars Explain Enigmatic Seventeenth Century Explosion


Discoveries made with the APEX telescope reveal that the "new" star that European astronomers saw appear in the sky in 1670 was not a nova, but a much rarer, violent breed of stellar collision. It was spectacular enough to be easily seen with the naked eye during its first outburst, but the traces it left were so faint that very careful analysis using modern submillimetre telescopes was needed to finally unravel the mystery more than 340 years later. A team led by scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Bonn found emission from a fascinating variety of molecules that provides the tell-tale evidence.

Some of the age’s greatest astronomers, including Hevelius — the father of lunar cartography — and Cassini, carefully documented the appearance of a new star in the skies in 1670. Hevelius described it as “Nova sub capite Cygni” - a new star below the head of the Swan - but astronomers now know it by the name Nova Vul 1670. This object lies within the boundaries of the modern constellation of Vulpecula (The Fox), just across the border from Cygnus (The Swan) and is also referred to as CK Vulpeculae, its designation as a variable star. Historical accounts of novae are rare and of great interest to modern astronomers.

This picture was created from a combination of visible-light images (Gemini telescope, blue), a submillimetre map showing the dust (SMA, green) and a map of the molecular emission (APEX & SMA, red).

ESO/T. Kamiński

Nova Vul 1670. This chart of the position of a nova that appeared in the year 1670 was recorded by the famous astronomer Hevelius and was published in the journ al Philosophical Transactions.

Royal Society

The lead author of the new study, Tomasz Kamiński (at the time of the observations at the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy, Bonn, Germany and now at ESO, Chile) explains: “For many years this object was thought to be a nova but the more it was studied the less it looked like an ordinary nova — or indeed any other kind of exploding star.”

When it first appeared, Nova Vul 1670 was easily visible with the naked eye and varied in brightness significantly over the course of two years. It then disappeared and reappeared twice before vanishing for good. Although well documented for its time, the intrepid astronomers of the day lacked the equipment needed to solve the riddle of the apparent nova’s peculiar performance.

During the twentieth century, astronomers came to understand that most novae could be explained as runaway explosive behaviour of close binary stars. But Nova Vul 1670 did not fit this model well at all and remained a mystery.

Even with ever-increasing telescopic power, for a long time the event was believed to have left no trace, and it was not until the 1980s that a team of astronomers detected a faint nebula surrounding the suspected location of what was left of the star. While these observations offered a tantalising link to the sighting of 1670, they failed to shed any new light on the true nature of the event witnessed over the skies of Europe over three hundred years ago.

Tomasz Kamiński continues the story: “We have now probed the area in the submillimetre and radio wavelengths. We have found that the surroundings of the remnant are bathed in a cool gas rich in molecules, with a very unusual chemical composition.” Among others, the team discovered the molecules CO, CN, HCN, HNC, NH3, SiO, the ionized molecules N2H+, HCO+ and even the organic H2CO (formaldehyde).

As well as APEX, the team also used the Submillimeter Array (SMA) and the Effelsberg radio telescope to discover the chemical composition and measure the ratios of different isotopes in the gas. Together, this created an extremely detailed account of the makeup of the area, which allowed an evaluation of where this material might have come from.

What the team discovered was that the mass of the cool material was too great to be the product of a nova explosion, and in addition the isotope ratios the team measured around Nova Vul 1670 were different to those expected to be produced by a nova. But if it wasn’t a nova, then what was it?

The answer is a rare and spectacular collision between two stars, more brilliant than a nova, but less so than a supernova, which produces a so-called red transient. These are a very rare events in which stars explode due to a merger with another star, spewing nuclear material into space, eventually leaving behind only a faint remnant embedded in a cool environment, rich in molecules and dust. This newly recognised class of eruptive stars fits the profile of Nova Vul 1670 almost exactly.

Co-author Karl Menten (Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy and Principal Investigator of APEX) concludes: “This kind of discovery is the most fun: something that is completely unexpected!”

The team is composed of Tomasz Kamiński (ESO, Santiago, Chile; Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy, Bonn, Germany [MPIfR]), Karl M. Menten (MPIfR), Romuald Tylenda (N. Copernicus Astronomical Center, Toruń, Poland), Marcin Hajduk (N. Copernicus Astronomical Center), Nimesh A. Patel (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA) and Alexander Kraus (MPIfR).

The Atacama Pathfinder Experiment (APEX) is a collaboration between the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy (MPIfR), Onsala Space Observatory (OSO), and the European Southern Observatory (ESO) to construct and operate a modified prototype antenna of ALMA (Atacama Large Millimetre Array) as a single dish on the Chajnantor plateau at an altitude of 5,100 meters above sea level (Atacama Desert, Chile). The telescope was manufactured by VERTEX Antennentechnik in Duisburg, Germany. The operation of the telescope is entrusted to ESO.

The 100m Radio Telescope Effelsberg is one of the largest fully steerable radio telescopes on earth. It is operated by the Max-Planck-Institut für Radioastronomie in Bonn, Germany and located in a valley approximately 40 km southwest of Bonn. It was used here to observe a number of radio transitions of different molecules, namely SiO, OH, H2O (water) and NH3 (ammonia).

Original Paper:
“Nuclear ashes and outflow in the oldest known eruptive star Nova Vul 1670” by T. Kamiński, K.M. Menten, R. Tylenda, M. Hayduk, N.A. Patel, A. Kraus, to appear online in the journal Nature on 23 March 2015: (after the embargo expires)


Dr. Tomasz Kamiński,
ESO, Santiago, Chile & Max-Planck-Institut für Radioastronomie, Bonn.
Fon: +56 02 2463-3277

Prof. Dr. Karl M. Menten,
Head of „Millimeter and Submillimeter Astronomy“ research department
Max-Planck-Institut für Radioastronomie, Bonn.
Fon: +49-228-525-297

Dr. Norbert Junkes,
Press and Public Outreach,
Max-Planck-Institut für Radioastronomie.
Fon: +49(0)228-525-399

Weitere Informationen:

Norbert Junkes | Max-Planck-Institut für Radioastronomie

More articles from Physics and Astronomy:

nachricht What happens when we heat the atomic lattice of a magnet all of a sudden?
18.07.2018 | Forschungsverbund Berlin

nachricht Subaru Telescope helps pinpoint origin of ultra-high energy neutrino
16.07.2018 | National Institutes of Natural Sciences

All articles from Physics and Astronomy >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: First evidence on the source of extragalactic particles

For the first time ever, scientists have determined the cosmic origin of highest-energy neutrinos. A research group led by IceCube scientist Elisa Resconi, spokesperson of the Collaborative Research Center SFB1258 at the Technical University of Munich (TUM), provides an important piece of evidence that the particles detected by the IceCube neutrino telescope at the South Pole originate from a galaxy four billion light-years away from Earth.

To rule out other origins with certainty, the team led by neutrino physicist Elisa Resconi from the Technical University of Munich and multi-wavelength...

Im Focus: Magnetic vortices: Two independent magnetic skyrmion phases discovered in a single material

For the first time a team of researchers have discovered two different phases of magnetic skyrmions in a single material. Physicists of the Technical Universities of Munich and Dresden and the University of Cologne can now better study and understand the properties of these magnetic structures, which are important for both basic research and applications.

Whirlpools are an everyday experience in a bath tub: When the water is drained a circular vortex is formed. Typically, such whirls are rather stable. Similar...

Im Focus: Breaking the bond: To take part or not?

Physicists working with Roland Wester at the University of Innsbruck have investigated if and how chemical reactions can be influenced by targeted vibrational excitation of the reactants. They were able to demonstrate that excitation with a laser beam does not affect the efficiency of a chemical exchange reaction and that the excited molecular group acts only as a spectator in the reaction.

A frequently used reaction in organic chemistry is nucleophilic substitution. It plays, for example, an important role in in the synthesis of new chemical...

Im Focus: New 2D Spectroscopy Methods

Optical spectroscopy allows investigating the energy structure and dynamic properties of complex quantum systems. Researchers from the University of Würzburg present two new approaches of coherent two-dimensional spectroscopy.

"Put an excitation into the system and observe how it evolves." According to physicist Professor Tobias Brixner, this is the credo of optical spectroscopy....

Im Focus: Chemical reactions in the light of ultrashort X-ray pulses from free-electron lasers

Ultra-short, high-intensity X-ray flashes open the door to the foundations of chemical reactions. Free-electron lasers generate these kinds of pulses, but there is a catch: the pulses vary in duration and energy. An international research team has now presented a solution: Using a ring of 16 detectors and a circularly polarized laser beam, they can determine both factors with attosecond accuracy.

Free-electron lasers (FELs) generate extremely short and intense X-ray flashes. Researchers can use these flashes to resolve structures with diameters on the...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Industry & Economy
Event News

Leading experts in Diabetes, Metabolism and Biomedical Engineering discuss Precision Medicine

13.07.2018 | Event News

Conference on Laser Polishing – LaP: Fine Tuning for Surfaces

12.07.2018 | Event News

11th European Wood-based Panel Symposium 2018: Meeting point for the wood-based materials industry

03.07.2018 | Event News

Latest News

Metal too 'gummy' to cut? Draw on it with a Sharpie or glue stick, science says

19.07.2018 | Materials Sciences

NSF-supported researchers to present new results on hurricanes and other extreme events

19.07.2018 | Earth Sciences

Scientists uncover the role of a protein in production & survival of myelin-forming cells

19.07.2018 | Life Sciences

Science & Research
Overview of more VideoLinks >>>