Once-In-A-Lifetime Nova Should Appear In Wyoming Skies This Summer

Like clockwork, a nova from the star T Coronea Borealis has been seen every 80 years for centuries. Astronomers expect the explosion to appear in the skies a couple years early this time which means it should be visible above Wyoming before the end of the summer.

Andrew Rossi

June 27, 20244 min read

A red giant star is orbited by a white dwarf in this illustration of how a nova like the T Coronae Borealis could happen.
A red giant star is orbited by a white dwarf in this illustration of how a nova like the T Coronae Borealis could happen. (NASA illustration via Goddard Space Flight Center)

Looking up and seeing a distant star throw a temper tantrum is enough to keep astronomers and space junkies looking up at nights. These days, they’re watching a little harder knowing a once-in-a-lifetime nova is about to explode and be visible for the first time in several generations.

More specifically, they’re eagerly watching T Coronae Borealis, a star in the Northern Crown constellation located between the constellations of the Boötes and Hercules. Based on their scientific analysis, the light of the distant star's nova could reach Earth anytime, but likely this summer.

A nova is when a flare of energy and light from the outside of a dying star interacts with what's left of the inside of a dead star. T Coronea Borealis has been producing a nova every 80 years, and it's time for the once-in-a-lifetime event to happen again.

"It's been reliable every 80 years for a couple of centuries, which is a good sign," said Max Gilbraith, the planetarium coordinator for the University of Wyoming Physics and Astronomy Department. "It last happened in 1946, and we just have to cross our fingers that we're getting lucky in 2024."

Although an appearance this summer would make it only 78 years since it was last seen, he said there are signs it's coming early.

"Whenever it gets dimmer than normal, as it is right now, it means that a flare is imminent," he said. "Based on the light curves we've seen before, some scientists are speculating around September."

Gilbraith admitted that some of the certainty and optimism of an imminent nova comes from the historical observations of T Coronea Borealis over the centuries. The actual window for the nova is between now and the end of 2026, the 80th anniversary of the last observed nova.

The recurrent novae produced by T Coronae is because it’s a binary system consisting of a white dwarf star and a red giant star.

The strong gravitational force of the white dwarf pulls gas from the red giant onto its surface, heating it. When the white dwarf's surface reaches over 10 million degrees Celsius, a thermonuclear explosion is triggered.

Where And How Long

When it becomes visible, Gilbraith said the nova's light will have a similar brightness to Polaris, the North Star. Polaris has an apparent magnitude of 1.98 in the night sky, which makes it easily visible to the naked eye.

"It'll look like a very bright new star in a constellation where it's not supposed to be," he said.

The Northern Crown is one of the 88 "modern constellations," which consists of seven main stars in a U shape. The nova will look like an eighth star in the middle of the U.

Unlike other celestial events like the parade of planets or the strawberry solstice moon, the nova won't be a one-night-only sight. Gilbraith said it should be visible for several days before disappearing again.

Thanks to the vast expanses of dark skies throughout the state, Wyomingites should be able to find the Northern Crown easily. It's just a question of when the nova will appear.

Nova getty 6 27 24
(Cowboy State Daily Staff)

And When Is That?

T Coronea Borealis is more than 3,000 light years away from Earth. That means the light from the nova that will be visible in the night sky sometime soon was generated thousands of years ago.

Gilbraith said there are telltale signs of when the nova is being emitted. They can't be seen by the naked eye, but astronomers know exactly what to look for.

Fortunately, Gilbraith said there would be plenty of advanced notice before the nova appears in the Northern Crown.

Thanks to incredible advancements in astronomical technology, plenty of data will be collected so the world can know when to look up, and there are promising signs that will be soon.

"Thanks to modern surveying techniques, we should be quite aware of its increasing brightness before it gets into visible brightness," he said. "It'll be too dim to see with the naked eye at first, but because we have persistent observations, we will know that it's getting brighter before it reaches its peak and becomes visible. So hopefully, we'll know a couple of days before that."

Contract Andrew Rossi at arossi@cowboystatedaily.com

The T Corona Borealis can be found by looking for the constellation Hercules.
The T Corona Borealis can be found by looking for the constellation Hercules. (NASA Illustration)

Andrew Rossi can be reached at arossi@cowboystatedaily.com.

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Andrew Rossi

Features Reporter

Andrew Rossi is a features reporter for Cowboy State Daily based in northwest Wyoming. He covers everything from horrible weather and giant pumpkins to dinosaurs, astronomy, and the eccentricities of Yellowstone National Park.