Scientists spot a huge nova eruption that happens only once every 15 years

Providing new insight into the mysterious phenomena of cosmic rays.
Chris Young
The binary star system RS Ophiuchi: Matter flows from the red giant onto the white

A pair of stars emitted a rare dramatic explosion last year, sending shockwaves hurtling through space.

Scientists have been keeping track of a red giant and a white dwarf in the Serpent Bearer constellation — known as RS Opiuchi — as it emits a massive explosion, sending particles flying outwards at close to the speed of light once every 15 years.

The latest explosion to come from the binary star system occurred last year and the dramatic event was captured by two Earth-based telescopes, a press statement reveals. It is the first time the rare event was captured in such detailed gamma-ray observations.

Close observations of the dramatic event have provided a new avenue of research for scientists who are looking to unravel the mystery of cosmic rays.

Besides last year's observation of the RS Opiuchi nova, scientists have observed the event take place in 1898, 1907, 1933, 1945, 1958, 1967, 1985, and 2006. Now, in a paper published in the journal Nature Astronomy, a group of researchers details the most recent findings. Last year's event was captured by the MAGIC (Major Atmospheric Gamma Imaging Cherenkov) telescopes in the Canary Islands, allowing the researchers to measure the radiation coming from the explosion to be 250 gigaelectronvolts — a hundred billion times more powerful than a typically visible light ray.

The MAGIC team had to quickly align their telescopes towards RS Opiuchi after the first signs it was going to blow, showing the quick deployability of their technology. "The spectacular eruption of the RS Ophiuchi shows that the MAGIC telescopes' fast response really pays off: It takes them no more than 30 seconds to move to a new target," David Green, a co-author of the paper from the Max Planck Institute for Physics, said in the statement.

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Nova outbursts are "a source of cosmic rays"

The researchers behind the paper believe the observations may help the scientific community to shed some light on the mystery of cosmic rays. First discovered by Austrian physicist Victor Hess in 1912, cosmic rays are highly-energetic atom fragments that come from outside our solar system and collide with Earth at the speed of light. They have been known to interfere with satellites, radio communications, and even quantum computers, but we are not sure where it is they come from. 

As the Magic telescopes discovered gamma rays, which are linked to cosmic rays, emanating from RS Ophiuchi, "this also makes nova outbursts a source of cosmic rays," says David Green. "However, they tend to play the role of local heroes – meaning to only contribute to the cosmic rays in the close neighborhood.

The big players for cosmic rays are supernova remnants," Green adds. "The shock fronts created from stellar explosions are far more violent compared to novae." Next, the researchers behind the new paper want to use the MAGIC telescopes to observe similar events much closer to Earth, so they can gain an even better understanding of the origin of the mysterious cosmic rays.