National Institute of Astrophysics (INAF), Astronomical Observatory of Padova, 36012 Asiago (VI), Italy
Invited review paper, received May 3, 2012
Symbiotic stars are interacting binary systems composed of a white dwarf (WD) accreting at high rate from a cool giant companion, which frequently fills its Roche lobe. The WD usually is extremely hot and luminous, and able to ionize a sizeable fraction of the cool giant wind, because it is believed the WD undergoes stable hydrogen nuclear burning on its surface of the material accreted from the companion. This leads to consider symbiotic stars as good candidates for the yet-to-be-identified progenitors of type Ia supernovae. Symbiotic stars display the simultaneous presence of many different types of variability, induced by the cool giant, the accreting WD, the circumstellar dust and ionized gas, with time scales ranging from seconds to decades. The long orbital periods (typically a couple of years) and complex outburst patterns, lasting from a few years to a century, make observations from professionals almost impossible to carry out, and open great opportunities to amateur astronomers to contribute fundamental data to science.