Nova Lesson for Kids

Instructor: Suzanne Rose

Suzanne has taught all levels PK-graduate school and has a PhD in Instructional Systems Design. She currently teachers literacy courses to preservice and inservice teachers.

When stars travel around the galaxy in pairs, sometimes unusual things can happen. One of these unusual events is a nova. Read on to find out what a nova is and how it's formed.

A Stellar Thief

Do you know two friends who are always together? In the night sky, we might call them a binary star system. A binary star system is made up of two stars that are in the same orbit. They travel together as they move through their galaxy.

Sometimes, one of the stars in the binary star system becomes a ''thief'' and steals some hydrogen from its partner. Let's see what results when this happens.

A Nova Is Born

Old stars that have burned up most of their gases are called white dwarfs. A star that is starting to die but which hasn't yet become a white dwarf is called a red giant. When one of the stars in a binary star system is a red giant and the other is a white dwarf, the white dwarf sometimes ''steals'' hydrogen gas from its partner; the gravitational pull between the stars pulls some of the hydrogen from the red giant.

Drawing of How a Nova Forms
process

Because the white dwarf is very hot, when the hydrogen gas reaches its surface, it explodes. When this happens, a nova is born! Nova is the name for the white dwarf star whose surface has exploded. When this happens, the white dwarf star shines very, very brightly because of the explosions on its surface.

Temporary Brightness

A nova can shine up to one million times brighter than normal. In the past, astronomers, who are scientists who study the stars and the other objects in our universe, mistakenly thought that a nova was a brand new star. Now astronomers know what causes them to occur.

The nova will burn brightly but only for a short time. Eventually, the white dwarf star goes back to normal and its brightness fades. Does this mean it'll never shine brightly again? Actually, it doesn't! Astronomers have learned that these white dwarf stars can continue to ''steal'' hydrogen from their red giant buddies.

A Nova Before And After
nova

The white dwarfs will become novae (you add an 'e' to the end of nova to make it plural), again and again, on a regular basis. Some may shine brightly every 20 years; others might shine brightly every 500 years; it depends on how much hydrogen they collect from their red giant pals.

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