The nova outburst: Thermonuclear runaways on degenerate dwarfs

Sumner Starrfield, James W. Truran, Warren M. Sparks

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

20 Scopus citations


Observational and theoretical studies of the outbursts of classical novae have provided critical insights into a broad range of astrophysical phenomena. Thermonuclear runaways (TNRs) in accreted hydrogen-rich envelopes on the white dwarf (WD) components of close binary systems constitute not only the outburst mechanism for a classical nova explosion, but also for recurrent novae and a fraction of the symbiotic novae explosions. Studies of the general characteristics of these explosions, both in our own galaxy and in neighboring galaxies of varying metallicity, can teach us about binary stellar evolution, while studies of the evolution of nova binary systems can constrain models for the (as yet unidentified) progenitors of Type Ia supernovae. Further, the empirical relation between the peak luminosity of a nova and the rate of decline, which presents a challenge to theoretical models, allows novae to be utilized as standard candles for distance determinations out to the Virgo Cluster. Extensive studies of novae with IUE and the resulting abundance determinations have revealed the existence of oxygen-neon white dwarfs in some systems. The high levels of enrichment of novae ejecta in elements ranging from carbon to sulfur confirm that there is significant dredge-up of matter from the core of the underlying white dwarf and enable novae to contribute to the chemical enrichment of the interstellar medium. Observations of the epoch of dust formation in the expanding shells of novae allow important constraints to be placed on the dust formation process and confirm that graphite, SiC, and SiO2 grains are formed by the outburst. It is possible that grains from novae were injected into the pre-solar nebula and can be identified with some of the pre-solar grains or "stardust" found in meteorites. Finally, γ-ray observations during the first several years of their outburst, using the next generation of satellite observatories, could confirm the presence of decays from 7Be and 22Na.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)81-86
Number of pages6
JournalNew Astronomy Reviews
Issue number1-2
StatePublished - Apr 2000

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Space and Planetary Science


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