Just in time for Christmas, a new star has appeared in our southern sky!
Nova Centauri 2013 is the brightest nova to be seen since 1999. It is about as bright as the fifth star in the Southern Cross and is very easy to spot from Melbourne, and across Australia in general. It sits right next to Beta Centauri, one of the famous two pointer stars that leads the way to the Southern Cross.
This photograph was taken from La Silla Observatory in the Chilean Atacama Desert on the morning of 9 December 2013.
Image: Yuri Beletsky
The nova appears just to the left of Beta Centauri, the bluer and higher of the two bright stars in the lower-right part of the image. The Southern Cross and the dark Coal Sack Nebula are also captured near the top of the image.
The nova was discovered on 2 December by John Seach from New South Wales. It is a 'classical nova' and is caused by a dead white dwarf star having a brief, but intense new-lease on life. White dwarfs are stellar embers, where nuclear fusion (the fire that keeps a star shining) has ended. However, this white dwarf has a close companion star. If enough gas from the companion falls onto the white dwarf it triggers a brief explosion on the star's surface.
The star undergoes an extreme burst of brightness. But unlike a supernova, the white dwarf remains intact and lives to tell the tale.
What better reason is there to slip away from the Christmas madness and spend a quiet moment or two, under the stars.
Ideas about the 'real' Christmas star from Phil Plait's Bad Astronomy blog
ESO Science Outreach Network - Australia