One could assume predictions come easily in astronomy—we know ahead of time about solar and lunar eclipses, meteor showers, the passage of comets and asteroids, and which planets will be visible when we stargaze at night. But mysteries of the cosmos are vast, and many celestial events still evade our best conjectures. One of those cryptic wonders is novae–or the deaths of stars. That is, until now.
Last year, Calvin College professor Larry Molnar announced he had calculated the future merging of a binary star—two stars in orbit around one another.
According to Molnar, the explosive assimilation will occur in 2022, (give or take a year)–a statement he doesn’t make lightly. “It’s a one-in-a-million chance that you can predict an explosion,” he said. “It’s never been done before.”
Molnar’s curiosity about this possibly-merging binary system was first piqued in a 2013 presentation by astronomer Karen Kinemuchi, who raised the questioned if the star, KIC 983227, was, in fact, a single pulsating star or, perhaps, a binary star system. The star had always been assumed to be flying solo, but after some investigation, Molnar concluded that not only is KIC 983227 a binary system but that the two stars also share an atmosphere. Molnar and his research assistant, Daniel Van Noord, then began to examine the star’s orbital period and realized it was slowly decreasing, which jumpstarted Molnar’s theory that the star is headed for nova. Further studies of KIC 983227 enabled him to zero in on a year for the anticipated merging.
If Molnar ends up being right, his work may pave the way for calculations and prognostications that have thus far remained daunting, if not impossible. He also stands to make history with the first accurate prediction of the death of a star. What’s even cooler is that we’ll all be able to see evidence of his work when a previously empty-looking spot in the nighttime sky suddenly catches fire and becomes visible to the naked eye–the collision would amplify KIC 983227’s brightness by roughly 10,000 times, making it a visible part of the Cygnus constellation and the Northern Cross.
Molnar and his colleagues will continue to observe KIC 983227 in 2017.