The passing on of Mr Nelson Mandela has coincided with an astronomical event in the southern hemisphere skies. On the 2 Dec 2013 John Seach from Australia discovered a nova close to ß Centauri (one of the bright pointer stars near the Southern Cross)
Excitement mounted as the nova brightened to being the brightest nova of the millennium thus far. On 4 Dec a post appeared on Facebook alerting us here in South Africa. Fellow amateur astronomers started reporting observations of the nova as a naked eye object.
Every evening I gazed up at the sky deciding whether I should set my alarm for 03:00 when the Southern Cross and pointers would be high in the sky. I must admit I gave a "little" sigh of relief when clouds rolled over or the wind was howling and I could go to bed and rather get up at break of day like a normal person.
If I had set my alarm for 0:300 on the morning of 6 December, I would have heard the news earlier. Madiba had passed away the previous evening.
On the evening of 8 Dec, the sky conditions were perfect. I had been watching all the tributes coming in for Tata Mandela, watching how, once again, he was reconciling a nation. There was no wind, the night was warm, the sky was beautiful. I set my alarm. This was the night I was going to search for the nova.
I was awake and outside before the alarm sounded. A cloud had moved in over the Southern Cross and pointers. Every now and then I actually caught a glimpse of ß Centauri and the new "star" nearby. Eventually the cloud lifted and at 04:00 I could take a photo.
As an astronomer I'm always reading about dying stars, novae and supernovae. Now that I've seen a nova with my naked eye, I'm looking forward to the next alert: supernova – so bright that it shines during the day!
"This particular event, Nova Cen 2013, is known as a classical nova, and is not to be confused with a supernova. Classical novae occur in binary star systems when hydrogen gas from the orbiting stellar partner is accreted onto the surface of the main star, causing a runaway thermonuclear event resulting in the brightening of the main star. In a classical nova the main star is not destroyed as is the case in a supernova. Instead, the star is dramatically brightened, and there is a simultaneous expansion of a debris shell" - http://apod.nasa.gov/apod/ap131207.html