Sometime in 2022 — give or take a year — stargazers will observe a bright new twinkle of light emerge from a dark void of space within the constellation Cygnus. What will appear to be the birth of a new star here on Earth will actually be the collision, explosion and death of an eclipsing binary system (a pair of stars orbiting one another) about 1,800 light years away.
Celestial fireworks like this aren’t uncommon, occurring every decade or so. The looming explosion of this particular pair of stars (known as KIC 9832227), however, is especially significant because it’s the first time scientists have confidently predicted a star’s final days.
The blast itself — technically a red nova, which falls between a classical nova and a supernova in brightness — will be spectacular. The colliding stars will become 10,000 times brighter than they are now and could rival the intensity of the North Star, Polaris, which is the 50th brightest star in the night sky.
That means the explosion will be visible with the naked eye. One night in 2022 or 2023, you’ll amble out to your backyard, look to the heavens, and if you know your constellations, you’ll see something almost unimaginable — light where there was once only darkness. The sparkle will be ephemeral. It should remain for about a year before fading.
“It will be a very dramatic change in the sky, as anyone can see it. You won’t need a telescope to tell me in 2023 whether I was wrong or I was right.,” said Calvin College astronomer Larry Molnar, who made the first-of-its-kind prediction.
Arriving at such a precise guess for a previously unpredictable event involved a lot of work and a little luck.
Because various telescopes had been pointed at the star system for some 15 years, scientists at Calvin College had more than a decade of data to analyze. After crunching the numbers, they realized that KIC 983227’s eclipse rate was increasing. In other words, the two stars we’re rotating around one another increasingly faster, suggesting the already tight duo was headed toward a cosmic collision.
But how did they come up with 2022?
The answer lies in another eclipsing binary system — V1309 Sco — that scientists had been studying before it unexpectedly exploded in 2008. By applying the same trend to KIC 983227, they were able to hypothesize the timing of the stellar inferno.
There are no guarantees, however, that their prediction will be accurate.
“This is the first ever prediction of an explosion. We don’t know yet whether it’s right or wrong, but it’s the first time we can actually make such a prediction,” Molnar said.
Be sure to keep your eyes on the skies in 2022, when a fiery blast of starstuff — or the lack thereof — reveals the answer.