Such an explosion has never been scientifically predicted, according to Calvin College professor Larry Molnar. “It’s a one-in-a-million chance that you can predict an explosion,” he said in a press release.
In 2013, Molnar and his research assistant, Daniel Van Noord, began observing KIC 9832227 and determined it was a binary system, or two stars orbiting each other. “[Van Noord] looked at how the color of the star correlated with brightness and determined it was definitely a binary,” Molnar said. “In fact, he discovered it was actually a contact binary, in which the two stars share a common atmosphere, like two peanuts sharing a single shell.”
The astronomers continued studying the system for another year and realized that it shared similar characteristics to another star, V1309 Scorpii, which suddenly exploded in a red nova in 2008. Each system’s orbital period decreased at an accelerating rate, which, for Molnar, is a telltale sign that KIC 9832227 will meet a similar fate around 2022.
Since Molnar presented his prediction at the January 2015 meeting of the American Astronomical Society, he and his team considered other possibilities for KIC 9832227’s orbital period change, and they’re now confident they’ve ruled those possibilities out.
“Bottom line is, we really think our merging-star hypothesis should be taken seriously right now and we should be using the next few years to study this intensely so that if it does blow up we will know what led to that explosion,” Molnar said.
Calvin College owns a special telescope in New Mexico which the astronomers will use to study the star. They’ll also utilize the Very Large Array, the Infrared Telescope Facility, and the XMM-Newton spacecraft to study the star’s radio, infrared, and X-ray emissions, respectively.
In the meantime, Calvin College communication arts and sciences professor Sam Smartt is producing a documentary on the unlikely discovery and the events surrounding KIC 9832227’s likely explosion.
“In addition to [the film] being about the unprecedented nature of the prediction, it’s also going to be something of an underdog story,” Smartt told Digital Trends. “Larry and I teach at a small liberal arts college without postdocs or graduate students. We don’t even have an astronomy major. So, while to many folks at Calvin this caliber of work is not surprising, I’m sure that it will seem to the wider world an unlikely origin for such an important breakthrough.”