Cataclysmic variable stars—novae, dwarf novae, and nova-likes—are close binary systems consisting of a white dwarf star (the primary) that is accreting matter from a low-mass companion star (the secondary)1. From time to time such systems undergo large-amplitude brightenings. The most spectacular eruptions, with a ten-thousandfold increase in brightness, occur in classical novae and are caused by a thermonuclear runaway on the surface of the white dwarf2. Such eruptions are thought to recur on timescales of ten thousand to a million years3. In between, the system’s properties depend primarily on the mass-transfer rate: if it is lower than a billionth of a solar mass per year, the accretion becomes unstable and the matter is dumped onto the white dwarf during quasi-periodic dwarf nova outbursts4. The hibernation hypothesis5 predicts that nova eruptions strongly affect the mass-transfer rate in the binary, keeping it high for centuries after the event6. Subsequently, the mass-transfer rate should significantly decrease for a thousand to a million years, starting the hibernation phase. After that the nova awakes again—with accretion returning to the pre-eruption level and leading to a new nova explosion. The hibernation model predicts cyclical evolution of cataclysmic variables through phases of high and low mass-transfer. The theory gained some support from the discovery of ancient nova shells around the dwarf novae Z Camelopardalis7 and AT Cancri8, but direct evidence for considerable mass-transfer changes prior, during and after nova eruptions has not hitherto been found. Here we report long-term observations of the classical nova V1213 Cen (Nova Centauri 2009) covering its pre- and post-eruption phases and precisely documenting its evolution. Within the six years before the explosion, the system revealed dwarf nova outbursts indicative of a low mass-transfer rate. The post-nova is two orders of magnitude brighter than the pre-nova at minimum light with no trace of dwarf nova behaviour, implying that the mass-transfer rate increased considerably as a result of the nova explosion.
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We thank M. Kubiak and G. Pietrzyński, former members of the OGLE team, for their contribution to the collection of the OGLE photometric data over the past years. P.M. is supported by the ‘Diamond Grant’ (number DI2013/014743) funded by the Polish Ministry of Science and Higher Education. The OGLE project has received funding from the National Science Center, Poland (grant number MAESTRO 2014/14/A/ST9/00121 to A.U.). We acknowledge the variable star observations from the AAVSO International Database contributed by observers worldwide and used in this research.