Washington: A flash of light from a stellar outburst observed by NASA`s Hubble Space Telescope has provided a rare look at the 3-D structure of material ejected by an erupting nova.
Astronomers used the Hubble telescope to observe the light emitted by the close double-star system T Pyxidis, or T Pyx, a recurring nova, during its latest outburst in April 2011.
A nova erupts when a white dwarf, the burned-out core of a sun-like star, has siphoned off enough hydrogen from a companion star to trigger a thermonuclear runaway. As hydrogen builds up on the surface of the white dwarf, it becomes hotter and denser until it detonates like a colossal hydrogen bomb, leading to a 10,000-fold increase in brightness in a little more than one day. Nova explosions are extremely powerful, equal to a blast of one million billion tons of dynamite. T Pyx erupts every 12 to 50 years.
Contrary to some predictions, the astronomers were surprised to find the ejecta from earlier outbursts stayed in the vicinity of the star and formed a disk of debris around the nova. The discovery suggests material continues expanding outward along the system`s orbital plane, but it does not escape the system.
"We fully expected this to be a spherical shell. This observation shows it is a disk, and it is populated with fast-moving ejecta from previous outbursts," said Arlin Crotts of Columbia University, a member of the research team.
Team member Jennifer Sokoloski, also of Columbia University and co-investigator on the project, suggests these data indicate the companion star plays an important role in shaping how material is ejected, presumably along the system`s orbital plane, creating the pancake-shaped disk. The disk is tilted about 30 degrees from face-on toward Earth.
Using Hubble`s Wide Field Camera 3, the team took advantage of the blast of light emitted by the erupting nova to trace the light`s path as it lit up the disk and material from previous ejecta.
The disk is so vast, about a light-year across, that the nova`s light cannot illuminate all of the material at once. Instead, the light sweeps across the material, sequentially illuminating parts of the disk, a phenomenon called a light echo. The light reveals which parts of the disk are nearer to Earth and which sections are farther away. By tracing the light, the team assembled a 3-D map of the structure around the nova.
Although astronomers have witnessed light propagating through material surrounding other novae, this is the first time the immediate environment around an erupting star has been studied in three dimensions.