sfl logo
University of Toronto Institute for Aerospace Studies
Space flight laboratory
Smaller Satellites, Bigger Return

A New Star in the Sky

Courtesy of The Centre for Research in Astrophysics of Quebec (CRAQ)

The BRITE-Constellation satellites have observed the outburst of a nova in the southern constellation Carina (ship’s keel) with unprecedented time resolution.

On March 22, 2018, Dr. Rainer Kuschnig, Operations Manager of BRITE-Constellation at Graz University of Technology in Austria, was very surprised at his daily verification of the five nano-satellites. In one of the BRITE sub-images a second star suddenly appeared, which had not been there the day before, and which became brighter thereafter day by day. “Over the last five years, I’ve seen millions of images taken by our satellites, but I’ve never seen anything like this!” said Dr. Kuschnig. He immediately informed the BRITE Science Team including Professors Anthony Moffat and Nicole St-Louis, both at Université de Montréal and members of the Center for Research in Astrophysics of Quebec (CRAQ). A search on the web led to an independent announcement by the “All Sky Automated Survey for Supernovae (ASASSN)” that the new star was identified as a nova and named “ASASSN-18fv” or more elegantly “Nova Carinae 2018”.


Figure 1. BRITE images (a) taken on March 1, 2018 with only the red giant HD 92063 and (b) taken on April 14, 2018 with both HD 92063 and Nova Carinae 2018 (ASASSN-18fv).

What had happened?

BRITE-Constellation conducted regular observations in the constellation of Carina. This time, which began in February 2018, one of the 18 bright stars in this field, the red giant star HD 92063, appeared to show large, unusual brightness changes (see Figure 1, left). At an angular separation of only two arc-minutes (for comparison the Moon is 30 arcminutes across) from the red-giant star, a nova had unexpectedly turned up on the detector, a month after the observing session in Carina had started. The nova rapidly increased in brightness (see Figure 1, right).

A nova, or more correctly a classical nova, is a transient astronomical phenomenon where unexpectedly and suddenly, a bright, seemingly new star appears in the sky. The phenomenon first gains in brightness, and then slowly fades over several weeks to months. The precursors of all observed novae are always binary systems with two very close stars in mutual orbit around each other. This leads to a flow of matter from one star to the other (Figure 2). In the case of a classical nova like Nova Carinae 2018 this involves a very compact white-dwarf star which accretes matter from its normal companion star. Once enough matter is accreted, there ensues a nuclear explosion on the surface of the white dwarf, which becomes much brighter than the two precursor stars.

nova 2

Figure 2. Artistic representation of the outburst of a nova (Copyright: K. Ulaczyk, Warsaw University Observatory).

Normally novae are discovered by specially designed instruments with ground-based telescope and observed only a few times per night. Only when several stations report the discovery will the observations start to be taken over by more sensitive instruments on Earth and in space. Until that happens, though, two to three weeks will have gone by after the outbreak of the nova. This means that the first, volatile phases of the Nova are often observed with insufficient frequency and accuracy. But it is precisely these early stages that are particularly important for understanding the nova phenomenon.

In the case of the Nova Carinae 2018, however, the BRITE-Constellation satellites observed the complete development of the nova: the original outbreak, the brightness maximum, and the final phases – all in unprecedented temporal resolution and precision over a total of 150 days (see Figure 3). This provides a unique opportunity for experts in this field of research to study the crucial initial stages of a nova outburst and thus provide a solid theoretical basis for their understanding.

nova 3

Figure 3. BRITE-Constellation brightness measurements of Nova Carinae 2018 (ASASSN-18fv).

About the BRITE-Constellation

BRITE-Constellation (http://www.brite-constellation.at) is a fleet of five functioning nano-satellites that capture the light of the brightest stars in the sky with high precision. BRITE is a concept first conceived and built in Canada, which is one of three countries that contribute satellites to the constellation. Austria launched the first two satellites (Uni-BRITE and BRITE-Austria = TUGSAT-1) on 25 February 2013 as the first-ever satellites of that country in a near-earth orbit of about 800 km altitude. Four other identical satellites were then launched into similar but distinct orbits by Canada (BRITE-Toronto and BRITE-Montreal, the latter unfortunately not reaching its proper orbit) and Poland (BRITE-Lem and BRITE Heveliusz) by mid-2014. BRITE-Constellation has since observed more than 550 stars ranging from 0 to 6th apparent visual magnitude, with the faintest stars visible to the naked eye from the ground under excellent viewing conditions. In each 24 square degree field, an area as large as the entire constellation of Orion, typically 15 to 20 stars are measured continuously for about half a year.


Space Flight Laboratory to Build HawkEye 360 Next-Gen Microsatellite Cluster for Commercial Radio Frequency Geolocation
Mar 27 2019
Canada Awards Contracts In Support of Arctic Surveillance
Feb 01 2019
Arianespace to Launch Slovenian NEMO-HD Microsatellite
Dec 03 2018
HawkEye 360 Announces Successful Launch of First Three Satellites Built by SFL Under Contract to DSI
Dec 03 2018
A New Star in the Sky
Nov 20 2018
GHGSat selects Arianespace to launch GHGSat-C1 on Vega
Nov 15 2018
UTIAS-SFL Students Win Significant Awards for their Technical Papers
Aug 14 2018
SFL-Led Nanosatellite Team Receives Canadian Alouette Award for Precise Autonomous Formation Flight
May 17 2018
NorSat-3 Ordered by Norwegian Space Centre, Satellite Under Construction at SFL
Jan 10 2018
Norwegian AIS Satellites See Far More Ships
Jan 10 2018
BRITE Reveals Spots on Supergiant Star Drive Spirals in Stellar Wind
Oct 24 2017
CLARA on NorSat-1 Successfully Switched on for the First Time
Aug 25 2017
Norwegian Satellites Launched Successfully and Healthy
Jul 14 2017
GHGSat Unveils Satellite Imagery
May 23 2017
Dubai Space Centre Orders Environmental Monitoring Satellite from SFL
May 16 2017
After Only One Week, CanX-7 Shows Drag Sails are Effective at Deorbiting Satellite
May 11 2017
CanX-7 Successfully Deploys Drag Sails kicking off Deorbiting Demonstration
May 04 2017
GHGSat Announces 1000th Measurement – Two Months Ahead of Schedule
Apr 07 2017
Space Flight Laboratory (SFL) Nanosatellite Validates Aircraft Tracking, Prepares for Deorbit Demo
Mar 30 2017
Space Flight Laboratory (SFL) to Develop Microsatellites for Greenhouse Gas Monitoring
Mar 24 2017
CanX-7 Aircraft Tracking and Deorbiting Demo Satellite Launched, Contacted, and Healthy
Sep 26 2016
GHGSat-D (CLAIRE) Bus Commissioning Ahead of Schedule
Jun 27 2016
M3MSat Launched and Successfully Contacted
Jun 22 2016
GHGSat-D (CLAIRE) Launches Successfully and First Contact Indicates Good Health
Jun 22 2016
Deep Space Industries and SFL selected to provide satellites for HawkEye 360’s Pathfinder mission
May 26 2016
Space Flight Laboratory (SFL) to Provide LEO Bus to SSL
May 10 2016
NORSAT-1 Launch Postponed Due to Faulty Bracket Provided by Arianespace
Apr 14 2016
BRITE-Constellation Sees Stars in a New Light
Feb 05 2016
Deep Space Industries Teams with UTIAS Space Flight Laboratory to Demonstrate Autonomous Spacecraft Maneuvering
Jan 26 2016
exactView-9 Launched Successfully and Contacted
Sep 28 2015
SFL’s Josh Newman Wins 1st Place in Small Satellite Student Competition for CanX-4 and CanX-5 Formation Flying Mission Contribution
Aug 12 2015
NORSAT-2 Contract Awarded to SFL by Norwegian Space Centre
Jul 13 2015
CanX-4&5 Formation Flying Mission Accomplished
Nov 05 2014
CanX-4 & CanX-5 Formation Flying Mission, One Month in Space
Jul 30 2014
Space Flight Laboratory Launches Five Satellites in Two Weeks
Jul 08 2014
AISSat-2 Successfully Launched
Jul 08 2014
Update on BRITE-Toronto and BRITE-Montreal
Jul 03 2014
Indian rocket successfully launches two Canadian satellites
Jun 30 2014
Two low-cost, car battery-sized Canadian space telescopes launched today
Jun 19 2014
UniBRITE and BRITE-Austria Commissioned and Operating Successfully
Feb 25 2014
Canadian Space Agency Awards Propulsion System Development Contract to SFL
Dec 02 2013
BRITE-PL1, WNISat-1, and GOMX-1 Launch Successfully
Nov 21 2013
Norwegian Space Centre Awards AISSat-3 Project to SFL
Jul 08 2013
SFL Wins Contract for First Norwegian Science Satellite – NORSAT-1
Jun 14 2013
UniBRITE Achieves Arcminute-Level Fine Pointing for First of its Kind Space Astronomy Mission
Jun 09 2013
Greenhouse Gas Monitoring Demonstration Satellite Contract Awarded
May 01 2013
Next Generation Automatic Identification System Satellites to be Developed under Communitech Program
Apr 19 2013
World's Smallest Astronomy Satellites In Orbit! (Toronto Star Article)
Feb 25 2013
Austrian BRITE Satellites Launched Successfully and Healthy! (Globe and Mail article)
Feb 25 2013
Microsatellite Science and Technology Centre (MSTC) Opens its Doors to the World
May 25 2012
View All News Articles
© 2014 University of Toronto Institute for Aerospace Studies Space Flight Lab. All rights reserved.