Studying a Guest Star’s Annual Appearances

With T Coronae Borealis expected to have an outburst any day now, recurrent novae are in the news. Recently, researchers reported their investigation of a recurrent nova that brightens every year.

Recurring Stellar Characters

light curves from M31N 2008-12a's eruptions from 2013 to 2022

Vertically offset light curves from M31N 2008-12a’s 2013–2022 eruptions. [Basu et al. 2024]

Recurrent novae are periodic outbursts that happen when a white dwarf — the exposed core of an evolved star with a mass of about 8 solar masses or less — snags some gas from a puffy red giant companion. Heated by the blisteringly hot surface of the white dwarf, this accreted gas ignites in a flash of nuclear fusion. This process can recur for millions of years, creating with each outburst a “guest” star that fades until the next eruption.

Known recurrent novae have outbursts anywhere from every year to every 98 years. The nova with the most recorded appearances is M31N 2008-12a, which hails from our galactic neighbor, Andromeda. Researchers have witnessed the star brighten 15 times since its discovery in 2008, and a dive into the archives dredged up three previous eruptions in 1992, 1993, and 2001. What can this collection of eruptions tell us about M31N 2008-12a’s past, present, and future?

Light curve showing the overall behavior as well as the "cusp" feature

Light curve in the i’ band, showing the overall behavior as well as the “cusp” feature. Click to enlarge. [Adapted from Basu et al. 2024]

Characterizing Outbursts

Judhajeet Basu (Indian Institute of Astrophysics and Pondicherry University) and collaborators examined optical, ultraviolet, and X-ray data to examine the behavior of M31N 2008-12a during its annual outbursts from 2017 to 2022. Their investigation showed that each outburst was roughly the same — rising rapidly to its peak in about a day, then declining sharply for 2–4 days before fading more gradually.

In some wavelength bands, the light curves show a “cusp” feature rising above the expected curve. The “cuspy” look of the light curve at certain wavelengths could be evidence for outflowing jets emerging from the poles of the star. These types of jets have been seen for other recurrent novae, like the Milky Way’s RS Ophiuchi.

From Nova to Supernova

histogram showing the frequency of days since last eruption

Demonstration of the possible increase in time between eruptions in the last few years. [Adapted from Basu et al. 2024]

Basu’s team found that while each recent outburst has looked mostly the same, the time between eruptions has gotten longer, on average, over the last seven years. The slowly increasing time between eruptions could mean one of two things: the mass of the white dwarf is decreasing over time, reducing the star’s ability to siphon gas from its companion, or the accretion rate is slowing. Calculations show that the star’s mass is increasing with time, so a decrease in the accretion rate must be responsible. This could point to anything from a change in the orbital dynamics of the system to the donor star running out of gas.

Researchers estimate that M31N 2008-12a has been experiencing nova eruptions every year for the past million years. Despite the repeated eruptions that remove mass from the white dwarf’s surface, the star is gaining more mass than it’s losing, creeping ever closer to the Chandrasekhar limit. Once the star hits this mass limit in another 20,000 years or so, it will be too massive to support itself against gravity and will undergo one final outburst as a supernova.


“Multiwavelength Observations of Multiple Eruptions of the Recurrent Nova M31N 2008-12a,” Judhajeet Basu et al 2024 ApJ 966 44. doi:10.3847/1538-4357/ad2c8e