An artist’s impression of a ‘micronovae’ shooting out from a white dwarf in a binary system. (Image credit: Mark Garlick (http://www.markgarlick.com/) )

Astronomers have detected a never-before-seen type of stellar explosion. The newly discovered cosmic blasts are around a million times less intense than similar explosions and, as a result, the researchers have dubbed the tiny detonations “micronovae.”

The new type of “mini” explosion is a variation of a classical nova, a powerful explosion that can occur in binary star systems — where two stars are locked in a stable orbit around one another. In these systems, the more massive partner can strip stellar material from the skin of its more diminutive mate. The superheated plasma that is stripped from the smaller star, which is mainly made of hydrogen, then forms a shell of gas around the more massive star, which slowly blends into the cannibalistic star. However, sometimes this gas can become so dense and hot that it explodes before being absorbed by the large star. The resulting explosion is very powerful and surrounds the entire surface of the star but does not destroy it. Classical novae appear as intense flashes of light that can be detected here on Earth using advanced telescopes; these flashes can persist for several weeks or even months. (Classical novae should not be confused with supernovas, which occur when stars much more massive than the sun collapse and explode completely.) 


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