Skip to main content

Discovery of a Nova

Due to the New England winter storm currently affecting the area, phone coverage at the AAVSO may be much reduced until Wednesday. The staff is still available via email, and we suggest using that method to contact us if you need assistance.

Excerpts From AAVSO Newsletter Number 10, January 1993.

Discovery of a Nova [NOVA CYGNI 1992] - Peter Collins, Boulder, CO

In the very early evening of Tuesday, February 18-19, 1992, I was on the lowest slopes of Flagstaff Mountain, a 6,800 foot hill in the Colorado Front Range that rises just behind the west Boulder neighborhood in which both my apartment and office are located. I was in a beach chair, using 10x50 binoculars to sweep that part of the summer Milky Way remaining in the evening sky. The moon was very full, and the cloud of aerosols from the Pinatubo eruption was especially thick - like observing from an island in the fog. I found a moderately conspicuous suspect above and to the right of Deneb, in an asterism created years ago and whose proper name I have wholly forgotten (asterisms are tiny constellations of binocular stars, used to memorize nova fields). It was magnitude 7.2, not extremely bright, yet compelling enough from its placement to require atlas checking immediately, rather than (as is usually the case) waiting until my return to the indoor world. I also made a magnitude estimate at this time. There was a star shown there in the atlas, but it was shown as roughly 9th magnitude. Since the position was perfect, however, and the magnitudes depicted in atlases are often more or less wrong, I decided things were O.K. I meant to check the photographic atlas to be sure, but did not remember to do so that evening.

It was happily clear in the morning sky as well and I went out for my further nova patrol. On this morning, I was particularly interested in viewing Bill Liller's and Paul Carnilleri's recent nova discovery in Sagittarius, so I brought out my Astroscan along with binoculars. The area of my early suspect was well north of the Sun, and visible in both morning and evening skies. I had a quick look, and was interested to see that the object had brightened a full magnitude during the intervening 9 hours; since I had made an estimate (Note: The estimate made was not a numeric magnitude, nor even a step magnitude estimate - it was merely as indication of very near equality with a particular nearby star). There were things to do - checking the "fine field" of the object in the reflector (that 9th magnitude star really existed and was a few arcminutes away!), making a quick attempt on Nova Sgr 1992 (a failure) and another estimate of my object with the AAVSO Variable Star Atlas (almost forgot). Then dawn. I had coffee and read through the General Catalogue of Variable Stars - there was nothing there. The combination of brilliancy, no motion, and high ecliptic latitude ruled out minor/major planets. I went to the office and checked my Vehrenberg Photographic Atlas - there was no reasonable candidate. After working out some kind of position, I called Headquarters (for once a nova convenient for their office hours) and they knew nothing about it, which seemed odd for such a bright object in the northern sky. After faxing them some materials, I went to look for photographs of the region in Sky & Telescope - a color photograph could give a better depiction of the visual field.

All this took a long time - the whole afternoon went by, the only word being a fax from Headquarters, [containing a finder chart] from the True Visual Magnitude Photographic Star Atlas, also not showing a 6th magnitude candidate. About 4:00 pm, I decided to call Lowell observatory, having had a prior invitation to do so in such cases, and conversed with Bobby Bus (discoverer of comets and minor planets for many years running) who said that he and Brian Skiff (likewise) would try for an astrometric plate in the evening. Their prospects in Flagstaff were for cirrusy skies, while by now the Boulder sky was nearly overcast. By 6:30 it had more or less cleared and I emerged to last evening's site, found the star again, still brighter, and felt I had turned a corner. After making a (bad) magnitude estimate of 5.5, I went back to the office and soon got a call from Brian Skiff saying the astrometric plate was in hand and showed a new star! I called a few people, and then to bed.

In the morning, a groggy estimate, laced with cirrus, was made (useless). The next day, February 20, Janet Mattei [who had alerted observers in Europe] said that the nova was seen in eastern Europe at magnitude 4.3. That night, it was faint naked eye object and the feeling was pure gratitude. I had to keep a watch on myself - as I said to one friend, "We thus enter the era of the cult of grandiosity".

Excerpt From AAVSO Newsletter Number 13, August 1994.

Discovery of Nova Herculis 1991, George Alcock, England

(Recollections shared with a group during a small meeting in Cambridge, England)

"It was a glorious evening - brilliant sun set. The sun went down and the sky remained clear until it got dark. This evening was the only time I felt that there was something to be seen, somewhere. I didn't know where it was of course. But then the clouds came out with the northeasterly wind we always get coming off the sea, and after about 50 minutes of observing the sky clouded over and within a matter of 5 minutes the whole sky was an orange glow - brilliant! Of course I'm observing inside now - I must be the only observer in the world that observes from inside the house. So, from that moment on I thought, 'I've possibly missed it." Then my friend Dennis rings up from North Hampton telling me of the magnificent aurora which I didn't see but he had it clear for another hour.

"The part of the sky where the nova was going to appear hadn't risen, you see, and all night long I was on tenterhooks, observing about every half hour looking out of the window to see whether the sky had cleared. Then suddenly, at about five minutes to four in the morning, I began to see a few stars. It cleared just as rapidly as it had clouded over. But it was already getting light - the dawn had broken. So I picked up a small pair of binoculars, 10x50, and I started observing Lacerta and Cygnus and coming down through the upper part of Pegasus, Aquila, and Delphinus. Then I went back up to Lyra and suddenly I went over to Ophiuchus and moved up - I started somewhere near MI0, where the recent comet had just appeared - and then Serpens Cauda way and when I got almost to the order of Aquila, there it was. Instantly I recognized it! I had looked at hundreds of stars before that but I recognized it instantly and immediately I worked out the position. Within 10 minutes Dennis was phoned up. He was in bed for he had been photographing that magnificent aurora until about half past two that morning and had some wonderful pictures but had gone to bed because he had to go to work the next morning. So I phoned him up and apparently he jumped out of bed so quickly he wasn't dressed when he went down to his garden to the observatory - he's got three observatories. He went down and opened the door to his observatory and of course it was practically daylight by then - he couldn't believe it. He got into position (he's got his equipment so that he can swing round to where an object might be) and within 10 minutes he'd taken 2 photographs, one 1-minute duration and another of 2-minute duration. He developed everything straight away and before 5:00 am he phoned me back to say that he'd got it on his photographs. He then sent the message to Guy Hurst and he sent it across to you. Apparently the first confirmation that we received was from the other side of the world - Australia.

"I discovered the nova at about 25 past 4, 1 got confirmation before 5:00 am from Dennis, and he sent messages in the usual routine all around before 7:00 am. Then we all sat back waiting for confirmation."

Go to Nova Search Section page

AAVSO 49 Bay State Rd. Cambridge, MA 02138 617-354-0484