It’s not often that a new body appears in the night sky — aside from meteors and the occasionally comet, things tend to look pretty much the same. Now, astronomers predict that a pair of stars so close they’re basically touching will collide and create a so-called red nova, resulting in a bright explosion visible to the naked eye.
The Calvin College team, lead by professor Larry Molnar, has been observing the KIC 9832227 binary system since they first heard about it at a conference in 2013. After determining that the system truly was binary, the astronomers looked at data from NASA’s Kepler space telescope and noticed that the orbital period, or amount of time it took the stars to orbit each other once, had decreased. Continued observations revealed that the spinning stars are speeding up, which allowed the astronomers to estimate that the pair will collide in 2022 (plus or minus a year).
Image: Larry Molnar
If that prediction is correct, the binary will appear in the Cygnus constellation, according to a press release. But it’s important to note that predictions aren’t always correct. “I think that they have done the best job given the data they have in hand and it’s very plausible,” Michael Shara, curator at the Department of Astrophysics at the American Museum of Natural History in New York told Gizmodo. “Nature has a hundred nasty little secrets up her sleeve,” he continued. “There may be something that is shortening the period or seems to be shortening the period that may stop and lengthen it. I don’t think it’s an open and shut case yet.”
Other astronomers were more confident. “This prediction has a good chance of coming true. Even if the timing is slightly off, merger of a contact binary is a very plausible way of interpreting the data,” Konstantin Batygin, an assistant professor of planetary science at Caltech told Gizmodo in an email. “Among the most exciting moments in science are those when the prediction has a clear resolution, on a relatively short timescale.”