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The Question

(Submitted December 30, 1998)

What is the smallest nova ever found?

The Answer

I don't know the answer to your question, but there are several types of things called 'nova'.

Classical novae tend to be, roughly, about the same size, although there is some variation. Typical absolute magnitudes are around +4.0. Recurrent novae, which are seen to go off multiple times with intervals of 10 to 50 years, are somewhat dimmer. These two types of novae are thought to be due to hydrogen buildup on the surfaces of white dwarfs, which accumulate the material until it suddenly ignites and burns.

Dwarf novae are a different phenomenon, and are typically hundreds of times fainter. These are due to instabilities in accretion disks. Dwarf nova can be a variety of sizes, probably down to the point where they can be classified either as 'nova' or 'brightness fluctuation'.

See http://imagine.gsfc.nasa.gov/docs/science/know_l2/cataclysmic_variables.html for more details.

David Palmer and Samar Safi-Harb
for Ask an Astrophysicist

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