Cosmic explosion could change the night sky in 2022

10 Jan 2017

The star Alpha Centauri. Image: ESO/Digitised Sky Survey 2

In five years’ time, the night sky could have a noticeable addition, with predictions that an enormous cosmic explosion will appear quite clearly to the naked eye.

Solar eclipses and comets crossing the night sky are some of the highlights of the stargazer’s year, but in 2022, a whole new cosmic spectacle could be appearing.

According to a team of astronomers in the US, over three years of investigation into a star dubbed KIC 9832227 suggests that in five years’ time, an enormous cosmic collision will occur.

Based on the team’s predictions, the binary star (two stars orbiting one another) will soon merge and, within a year either side of 2022, will explode to become the brightest star in the sky for a period of time.

The destroyed star will be 10,000 times brighter than normal, resulting in it being visible to the naked eye on Earth, thereby adding another point onto the famous Northern Cross star pattern.

Presenting his findings to the recent American Astronomical Society meeting in Texas, Calvin College’s Prof Larry Molnar explained how upon discovering it was a binary star, he and his team examined their orbital patterns over the past 15 years.

Will capture people’s imaginations

Since first examining it back in 2013, two tests have ruled out the presence of a companion star with an orbital period greater than 15 years, also finding that its orbital decrease period has both matched and exceeded that shown by other contact binaries.

This means that, for the first time, astronomers will be able to watch a binary star die in real time, offering valuable scientific data for future predictions.

Speaking of the discovery, Molnar said: “It’s a one-in-a-million chance that you can predict an explosion. It’s never been done before.”

Speaking of the importance of the discovery, Matt Walhout of Calvin College said: “The project is significant not only because of the scientific results, but also because it is likely to capture the imagination of people on the street.

“If the prediction is correct, then for the first time in history, parents will be able to point to a dark spot in the sky and say: ‘Watch, kids, there’s a star hiding in there, but soon it’s going to light up.’”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic