NASA: Blaze Star could soon reappear


Recently, NASA announced that a “new star” may soon appear in the constellation Corona Borealis, the Northern Crown.

Of course, the star, called T Coronae Borealis (T CrB), isn’t new at all. A telescope and a good star map reveal it as well below naked-eye visibility. However, every 79 years or so, it blazes into brilliant visibility for a while, making it a “nova” or “new” star.

Novae are relatively common in the Milky Way galaxy. Using telescopes, astronomers discover about 10 every year. Every year or so, one of them might reach naked-eye visibility.

T CrB’s brilliance and relative regularity make it exceptional enough for astronomers to give it a name — the Blaze Star.

The star’s possible reappearance reminds me of a research project I promised to do a few years back. Earl Long, former governor of Louisiana, had an illicit relationship with a stripper — er, exotic dancer — named Blaze Starr. Is there a connection? Did the infamous Starr take her stage name from the famous star in Corona Borealis?

Here’s what I know so far.

During the evening of May 12, 1866, stargazers were shocked to see a naked-eye star where one had not been before.

The new star faded rapidly. In only eight days, it had sunk below naked-eye visibility.

T CrB turned out to be a special kind of star called a nova, which unexpectedly flares to brief brilliance.

In its normal state, the star shines with 50 times the energy output of our sun. At its maximum luminosity, it shines as bright as 200,000 suns.

British astronomer William Huggins immediately applied the new science of spectroscopic analysis to the star. He split the light from the star into its component parts, much like a prism divides sunlight into its rainbow colors. That rainbow is called the star’s spectrum.

Huggins discovered that a stellar explosion caused T CrB’s brief brightness. He also was somewhat surprised to find a second spectrum instead of just one.

Modern astronomers believe that T CrB is surrounded by a rapidly expanding shell of gas. The star is blowing off its outer layers at nearly one million miles per hour, a velocity virtually unparalleled in our galaxy.

The story temporarily ends there. However, 80 years later, the Blaze Star, as it eventually came to be known, did it again!

In February 1946, T CrB again flared to great brilliance, making it a “recurrent nova.”

Recently, astronomers began to see a significant dimming of the main star, a telltale sign of another outburst. A similar dimming occurred in the year before the 1946 eruption.

Thus, some astronomers expect the star to make a return engagement sometime before October.

So keep your eye on the constellation Corona Borealis, which you will find between the constellations Hercules and Boötes. You can find a map of the constellation’s distinctive semicircle of stars here:

T CrB will appear just outside the semicircle near the star Epsilon Coronae.

Modern spectroscopic analysis suggests that the Blaze Star is actually two stars. The main star is a red giant 120 times the diameter of our sun.

Orbiting the red giant is a tiny dead star called a blue-white dwarf. Apparently, the dwarf is what’s causing all the trouble here. It has about two-thirds the “starstuff” of its much larger companion. Yet its material is packed down to a size that may be no greater than a planet like Earth.

That fact makes it incredibly dense. A tablespoon of it might weigh several tons. Its extreme density gives it the gravitational power of a typical star, except that its gravity is compressed into a tiny space. Its density makes it blazingly hot — hotter than our sun and much hotter than its larger companion.

The red giant is much more spread out. Its outer layers are so thin that they are barely there at all.

The dwarf orbits the giant so closely that it passes within the thin outer region of the red star, bumping and grinding against the red giant’s tenuous surface layers.

Astronomers aren’t sure what causes stars like the Blaze Star to pulsate periodically.

One theory holds that as the dwarf circles around its larger companion, it sucks the substance of the red giant into orbit around itself.

Then, some of the red giant’s material is pulled onto the dwarf’s scorching surface. Eventually, enough material builds up on the surface to fuel a massive explosion.

Another theory suggests that the blue-white dwarf strips the red giant of its outer shell, exposing the hot, bright layers underneath. The red giant rapidly expands, revealing its brilliant inner regions. The white dwarf’s high gravity causes the explosion of light, but the dwarf itself does not explode.

Or perhaps the rapid brightening of the system might be caused by a combination of both factors.

However, that scientific controversy pales when compared with an even greater cultural mystery that has yet to be resolved.

Blaze Starr began her career in exotic entertainment in 1946, the same year as T CrB’s most recent eruption.

Was dancer Blaze Starr (or her manager, who may have chosen her stage name) secretly obsessed with astronomy and the 1946 eruption of the Blaze Star? Did she decide to take her nom de scène from the star?

Or was the unknown astronomer who gave the star its nickname secretly obsessed with exotic dancers?

This old stargazer promises his loyal readership one thing. He will not rest until he finds the answer.

Tom Burns is the former director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.

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