A Stellar Explosion Could Be Visible In the Night Sky In 2022

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).

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’ve 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.”

“V838 Monocerotis – a possible Luminous red nova” (Image: NASA, ESA and H.E. Bond (STScI)/Wikimedia Commons)

Scientists Predict Star Collision Visible To The Naked Eye In 2022

Scientists predict that a pair of stars in the constellation Cygnus will collide in 2022, give or take a year, creating an explosion in the night sky so bright that it will be visible to the naked eye.

If it happens, it would be the first time such an event was predicted by scientists.

Calvin College professor Larry Molnar and his team said in a statement that two stars are orbiting each other now and "share a common atmosphere, like two peanuts sharing a single shell."

They predict those two stars, jointly called KIC 9832227, will eventually "merge and explode ... at which time the star will increase its brightness ten thousand fold becoming one of the brighter stars in the heavens for a time." That extra-bright star is called a red nova. They recently presented their research at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Grapevine, Texas.

The team has monitored the star pair since 2013, and noticed that its orbital period was slowing down. That suggested it might be following a pattern scientists observed in another star, which exploded unexpectedly in 2008, the team said. They've now ruled out several other explanations for what could be causing the orbital period change, increasing confidence in the prediction.

"It will be a very dramatic change in the sky, as anyone can see it. You won't need a telescope to tell me in 2023 whether I was wrong or I was right," Molnar said at the presentation, according to National Geographic.

Todd Hillwig, an astronomer at Valparaiso University who was not involved in the prediction, told The Two-Way that he thinks "there's room for optimism, and room to say there are other things that could happen. But based on his data I think this looks like a very possible outcome."

Now, says Molnar, it's time to pay close attention: "Bottom line is we really think our merging star hypothesis should be taken seriously right now and we should be using the next few years to study this intensely so that if it does blow up we will know what led to that explosion," he says.

Hillwig explains that "we know quite a bit about the physics of stars," but "we don't know a lot at this point about exactly how these stars will merge when that happens, because we've only seen events like this after the fact."

That means knowing when a collision will take place provides a unique opportunity for scientists, Hillwig adds: "The possibility that we could see a system like this, and study it really well beforehand, and then see it happen has the potential to tell us a lot about the physics that's going on with these types of systems."

Scientists predict a star collision in the constellation Cygnus. NASA/IPAC/MSX

Star Explosion Could Change Night Sky

There could be some dramatic changes to the night sky if astronomers are correct in their observations.

They say it may be possible to see a binary star in the Cygnus constellation merge and explode in 2022, creating a red nova. The binary star is about 1,800 light-years away in the Cygnus constellation, so what astronomers are observing now happened about 1,800 years ago.

They are making a present day prediction about what may be seen in 2022 based on those observations.

The announcement was made Friday by Lawrence Molnar, professor at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, his students, and fellow astronomers from Apache Point Observatory (APO), New Mexico, and the University of Wyoming at the 229th meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Grapevine, Texas.

“It is a one-in-a-million chance that you can predict an explosion. It has never been done before,” Molnar said.

The binary system, called KIC 9832227, has long been studied, but in 2013, astronomers noticed a change in its brightness. Upon closer inspection, Molnar and his team discovered the stars were getting closer to one another.

The astronomers then compared that data to an observed creation of a red nova from the binary V1309 Scorpii, which led them to conclude a red nova might be about to form at KIC 9832227.

“Bottom line is we really think our merging star hypothesis should be taken seriously right now, and we should be using the next few years to study this intensely so that if it does blow up we will know what led to that explosion,” Molnar said.

If the new red nova does materialize, it will be visible in Cygnus in the prominent formation called the Northern Cross.

“The project is significant not only because of the scientific results, but also because it is likely to capture the imagination of people on the street. If the prediction is correct, then for the first time in history, parents will be able to point to a dark spot in the sky and say, ‘Watch, kids, there’s a star hiding in there, but soon it’s going to light up," Matt Walhout, dean for research and scholarship at Calvin College, said.

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