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A nova (pl. novae) is a cataclysmic nuclear explosion caused by the accretion of hydrogen on to the surface of a white dwarf star, which ignites and starts nuclear fusion in a runaway manner. Novae are not to be confused with supernovae or luminous red novae.



If a white dwarf has a close companion star that overflows its Roche lobe, the white dwarf will steadily accrete gas from the star's outer atmosphere. The companion may be a main sequence star, or one that is aging and expanding into a red giant. The captured gases consist primarily of hydrogen and helium, the two principal constituents of ordinary matter in the universe. The gases are compacted on the white dwarf's surface by its intense gravity, compressed and heated to very high temperatures as additional material is drawn in. The white dwarf consists of degenerate matter, and so does not inflate at increased heat, while the accreted hydrogen is compressed upon the surface. The dependence of the hydrogen fusion rate on temperature and pressure means that it is only when it is compressed and heated at the surface of the white dwarf to a temperature of some 20 million kelvin that a nuclear fusion reaction occurs; at these temperatures, hydrogen burns via the CNO cycle.

For most binary system parameters, the hydrogen burning is thermally unstable and rapidly converts a large amount of the hydrogen into other heavier elements in a runaway reaction.[1] (Hydrogen fusion can occur in a stable manner on the surface, but only for a narrow range of accretion rates.) The enormous amount of energy liberated by this process blows the remaining gases away from the white dwarf's surface and produces an extremely bright outburst of light. The rise to peak brightness can be very rapid or gradual which is related to the speed class of the nova; after the peak, the brightness declines steadily.[2] The time taken for a nova to decay by 2 or 3 magnitudes from maximum optical brightness is used to classify a nova via its speed class. A fast nova will typically take less than 25 days to decay by 2 magnitudes and a slow nova will take over 80 days.[3]

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