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Future Fireworks

June 29, 2017

With the Fourth of July coming up, we predict that you’ll soon be seeing fireworks in the night sky. And some astronomers in Michigan are predicting fireworks in the sky as well. They expect a star in Cygnus, the swan, to explode in about five years. If they’re right, the blast will be as bright as the North Star.

KIC 9832227 was first studied in detail by Kepler, a planet-hunting space telescope. Its observations showed that the system’s brightness was changing. Larry Molnar and Daniel van Noord of Calvin College were intrigued by the star, so they kept an eye on it for a while.

Van Noord concluded that the system is a contact binary — two stars that actually touch other. And their contact is getting more intimate — their cores are getting closer together.

By comparing the system to a contact binary that exploded a few years ago, Molnar predicts that the stars will merge in 2022, give or take a year. The merger will trigger an explosion. For a few weeks, the system will shine 10,000 times brighter than it does today.

Right now, the astronomers are watching the system with radio and infrared telescopes on the ground, and an X-ray telescope in space. These observations should confirm whether we’ll see some fireworks from the swan in the years ahead.

And Cygnus flies across the eastern sky on these early summer evenings. KIC 9832227 is near the middle of its top wing. But you need a telescope to see it — for now.


Script by Damond Benningfield

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