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An asymmetric shock wave in the 2006 outburst of the recurrent nova RS Ophiuchi

Abstract

Nova outbursts1 take place in binary star systems comprising a white dwarf and either a low-mass Sun-like star or, as in the case of the recurrent nova RS Ophiuchi2, a red giant. Although the cause of these outbursts is known to be thermonuclear explosion of matter transferred from the companion onto the surface of the white dwarf3, models of the previous (1985) outburst of RS Ophiuchi failed to adequately fit the X-ray evolution4 and there was controversy over a single-epoch high-resolution radio image, which suggested that the remnant was bipolar5,6 rather than spherical as modelled. Here we report the detection of spatially resolved structure in RS Ophiuchi from two weeks after its 12 February 2006 outburst. We track an expanding shock wave as it sweeps through the red giant wind, producing a remnant similar to that of a type II supernova but evolving over months rather than millennia7. As in supernova remnants, the radio emission is non-thermal (synchrotron emission), but asymmetries and multiple emission components clearly demonstrate that contrary to the assumptions of spherical symmetry in models of the 1985 explosion, the ejection is jet-like, collimated by the central binary whose orientation on the sky can be determined from these observations.

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Figure 1: High-resolution radio images of RS Oph.
Figure 2: Expansion of the bright ring-like component.
Figure 3: A third component seen in MERLIN radio imaging.
Figure 4: A bipolar model for the radio emission.

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Acknowledgements

We are grateful to the staff of the VLBA (a facility of the NSF operated under cooperative agreement by Associated Universities, Inc.), EVN (a joint facility of European, Chinese, South African and other radio astronomy institutes funded by their national research councils), the NASA DSN facility at Robledo and MERLIN (a National Facility of PPARC operated by the University of Manchester) for help in obtaining these observations at short notice.

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O'Brien, T., Bode, M., Porcas, R. et al. An asymmetric shock wave in the 2006 outburst of the recurrent nova RS Ophiuchi. Nature 442, 279–281 (2006). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature04949

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