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Astronomers gear up for the upcoming nova explosion

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, HOST:

There is a lot of excitement for the upcoming solar eclipse.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Which makes sense. I mean, seeing our sun disappear is pretty cool.

ELLIOTT: But NASA astronomer Bill Cooke is keeping his eyes peeled for something a little more explosive.

BILL COOKE: Seeing that star blow up is much rarer than a solar eclipse.

ELLIOTT: Cooke is describing the Corona Borealis binary system. Three thousand light years away from Earth, two stars are orbiting each other. One is a red giant star that's dumping all this material onto its neighbor. The other star, which is about the size of the Earth, can only take so much.

COOKE: Eventually it accumulates so much material that literally a thermonuclear reaction starts and the star brightens by hundreds of times. It just gets super bright.

FADEL: So bright, in fact, that it will suddenly be visible to the naked eye, pretty close to the North Star.

ELLIOTT: Astronomers say this nova explosion will likely take place anytime between now and September and last for several days.

FADEL: And in this case, history does repeat itself.

COOKE: It goes nova about every 79 to 80 years. It last did this in 1946, and it was observed to go nova for centuries before that. So it's kind of a once-in-a-lifetime thing.

ELLIOTT: But here's the groovy part - the relativity of time. Because the star is so far away, all of this already happened about 3,000 years ago.

COOKE: The collapse of the Bronze Age. You know, the great empires of Egypt, Troy, they were falling apart.

FADEL: Cooke says he'll be watching the skies from the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. Scientists hope their observations of this distant event could help us understand the ways elements like carbon, nitrogen and oxygen are created, and you might want to do the same.

COOKE: How often are you going to get to see a star that's exploding? Might be something you want to log in your journal.

ELLIOTT: Captain's log, stardate 2024. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Devan Schwartz
Devan Schwartz is an editor for NPR's Morning Edition. He is an experienced audio professional who, in addition to his work with NPR, has worked with such organizations as BBC, Slate, the New York Times, and various public radio stations.