Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

A unified theory of cataclysmic variable evolution from feedback-dominated numerical simulations


The envelopes accreted by white dwarf stars from their hydrogen-rich companions1 experience thermonuclear-powered runaways2,3 observed as classical nova eruptions4,5 peaking at 105–106 solar luminosities6,7,8,9. Virtually all nova progenitors—‘nova-like variables’—exhibit high mass transfer rates to their white dwarfs before and after an eruption10. Surprisingly, 10–1,000 times lower mass transfer rate11 binaries, exhibiting accretion-powered ‘dwarf nova’ outbursts12, exist at identical orbital periods. Nova shells surrounding dwarf novae13,14,15,16 demonstrate that at least some novae metamorphize into dwarf novae17,18, though the mechanisms and timescales governing mass transfer rate variations are poorly understood. Here, we report simulations of the multi-Gyr evolution of novae modelling every eruption’s thermonuclear runaway, mass and angular momentum losses, feedback due to irradiation and variable mass transfer rate, and orbital size and period changes. These feedback-dominated simulations reproduce the observed range of mass transfer rates at a given orbital period, with large and cyclic kyr–Myr timescale changes. They also demonstrate Myr-long deep hibernation (complete stoppage of mass transfer), but only in short-period binaries; that initially different binaries converge to become nearly identical systems; low-mass-transfer-rate dwarf novae occasionally generate novae; and that the masses of white dwarfs decrease monotonically, but only slightly while their red dwarf companions are consumed.

Access options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

Fig. 1: Cyclic variation of the accretion rate onto the white dwarf during nine individual nova cycles spanning the entire, multi-Gyr evolution for each of the four models listed in Table 1.
Fig. 2: Long-term changes for the four models in Table 1.
Fig. 3: Percentage of nova eruptions for which a binary system is found in an orbital period interval, for each of the four models.
Fig. 4: Percentage of cataclysmic variable binary system lifetime spent at different orbital periods.

Data availability

All data pertaining to each simulation is available upon reasonable request from Y.H.


  1. 1.

    Kraft, R. Binary stars among cataclysmic variables. III. Ten old novae. Astrophys. J. 139, 457–475 (1964).

    ADS  Google Scholar 

  2. 2.

    Starrfield, S., Truran, J. W., Sparks, W. M. & Kutter, G. CNO abundances and hydrodynamic models of the nova outburst. Astrophys. J. 176, 169–176 (1972).

    ADS  Google Scholar 

  3. 3.

    Prialnik, D., Shara, M. & Shaviv, G. The evolution of a slow nova model with a Z = 0.03 envelope from pre-explosion to extinction. Astron. Astrophys. 62, 339–348 (1978).

    ADS  Google Scholar 

  4. 4.

    Warner, B. Cataclysmic Variable Stars (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1995).

  5. 5.

    Yaron, O., Prialnik, D., Shara, M. M. & Kovetz, A. An extended grid of nova models. II. The parameter space of nova outbursts. Astrophys. J. 623, 398–410 (2005).

    ADS  Google Scholar 

  6. 6.

    Shara, M. M. Recent progress in understanding the eruptions of classical novae. Publ. Astron. Soc. Pac. 101, 5–31 (1989).

    ADS  Google Scholar 

  7. 7.

    José, J. & Hernanz, M. Nucleosynthesis in classical nova explosions. J. Phys. G Nucl. Part. Phys. 34, R431–R458 (2007).

    ADS  Google Scholar 

  8. 8.

    Bode, M. F. The outbursts of classical and recurrent novae. Astron. Nachr. 331, 160–168 (2010).

    ADS  Google Scholar 

  9. 9.

    Starrfield, S., Iliadis, C. & Hix, W. R. The thermonuclear runaway and the classical nova outburst. Publ. Astron. Soc. Pac. 128, 051001 (2016).

    ADS  Google Scholar 

  10. 10.

    Collazzi, A. C. et al. The behavior of novae light curves before eruption. Astron. J. 138, 1846–1873 (2009).

    ADS  Google Scholar 

  11. 11.

    Knigge, C., Baraffe, I. & Patterson, J. The evolution of cataclysmic variables as revealed by their donor stars. Astrophys. J. Suppl. Ser. 194, 28–76 (2011).

    ADS  Google Scholar 

  12. 12.

    Dubus, G., Otulakowska-Hypka, M. & Lasota, J.-P. Testing the disk instability model of cataclysmic variables. Astron. Astrophys. 617, A26 (2018).

    ADS  Google Scholar 

  13. 13.

    Shara, M. M. et al. An ancient nova shell around the dwarf nova Z Camelopardalis. Nature 446, 159–162 (2007).

    ADS  Google Scholar 

  14. 14.

    Shara, M. M. et al. AT Cnc: a second dwarf nova with a classical nova shell. Astrophys. J. 758, 121–126 (2012).

    ADS  Google Scholar 

  15. 15.

    Miszalski, B. et al. Discovery of an eclipsing dwarf nova in the ancient nova shell Te 11. Mon. Not. R. Astron. Soc. 456, 633–640 (2016).

    ADS  Google Scholar 

  16. 16.

    Shara, M. M. et al. Proper-motion age dating of the progeny of Nova Scorpii ad 1437. Nature 548, 558–560 (2017).

    ADS  Google Scholar 

  17. 17.

    Vogt, N. The structure and outburst mechanisms of dwarf novae and their evolutionary status among cataclysmic variables. Mitt. Astron. Gessell. 57, 79–118 (1982).

    ADS  Google Scholar 

  18. 18.

    Shara, M., Livio, M., Moffat, A. & Orio, M. Do novae hibernate during most of the millennia between eruptions? Links between dwarf and classical novae, and implications for the space densities and evolution of cataclysmic binaries. Astrophys. J. 311, 163–171 (1986).

    ADS  Google Scholar 

  19. 19.

    Drew, J. Inclination and orbital-phase-dependent resonance line-profile calculations applied to cataclysmic variable winds. Mon. Not. R. Astron. Soc. 224, 595–632 (1987).

    ADS  Google Scholar 

  20. 20.

    Gill, C. D. & O’Brien, T. J. Hubble Space Telescope imaging and ground-based spectroscopy of old nova shells—I. FH Ser, V533 Her, BT Mon, DK Lac and V476 Cyg. Mon. Not. R. Astron. Soc. 314, 175–182 (2000).

    ADS  Google Scholar 

  21. 21.

    Kovetz, A., Prialnik, D. & Shara, M. M. What does an erupting nova do to its red dwarf companion? Astrophys. J. 325, 828–836 (1988).

    ADS  Google Scholar 

  22. 22.

    Ritter, H., Zhang, Z.-Y. & Kolb, U. Irradiation and mass transfer in low-mass compact binaries. Astron. Astrophys. 360, 969–990 (2000).

    ADS  Google Scholar 

  23. 23.

    Baraffe, I. & Kolb, U. On the late spectral types of cataclysmic variable secondaries. Mon. Not. R. Astron. Soc. 318, 354–360 (2000).

    ADS  Google Scholar 

  24. 24.

    Stehle, R., Ritter, H. & Kolb, U. An analytic approach to the secular evolution of cataclysmic variables. Mon. Not. R. Astron. Soc. 279, 581–590 (1996).

    ADS  Google Scholar 

  25. 25.

    Hillman, Y., Prialnik, D., Kovetz, A. & Shara, M. Growing white dwarfs to the Chandrasekhar limit: the parameter space of the single degenerate SN Ia channel. Astrophys. J. 819, 168–178 (2016).

    ADS  Google Scholar 

  26. 26.

    Patterson, J. et al. BK Lyncis: the oldest old nova and a Bellwether for cataclysmic variable evolution. Mon. Not. R. Astron. Soc. 434, 1902–1919 (2013).

    ADS  Google Scholar 

  27. 27.

    Mróz, P. et al. The awakening of a classical nova from hibernation. Nature 537, 649–651 (2016).

    ADS  Google Scholar 

  28. 28.

    Townsley, D. & Bildsten, L. Classical novae as a probe of the cataclysmic variable population. Astrophys. J. 628, 395–400 (2005).

    ADS  Google Scholar 

  29. 29.

    Livio, M. & Shara, M. M. Binary system parameters and the hibernation models of cataclysmic variables. Astrophys. J. 319, 819–826 (1987).

    ADS  Google Scholar 

  30. 30.

    Kovetz, A., Yaron, O. & Prialnik, D. A new, efficient stellar evolution code for calculating complete evolutionary tracks. Mon. Not. R. Astron. Soc. 395, 1857–1874 (2009).

    ADS  Google Scholar 

  31. 31.

    Prialnik, D. & Kovetz, A. An extended grid of multicycle nova evolution models. Astrophys. J. 445, 789–810 (1995).

    ADS  Google Scholar 

  32. 32.

    Epelstain, N., Yaron, O., Kovetz, A. & Prialnik, D. A thousand and one nova outbursts. Mon. Not. R. Astron. Soc. 374, 1449–1456 (2007).

    ADS  Google Scholar 

  33. 33.

    Hillman, Y., Prialnik, D., Kovetz, A. & Shara, M. M. Observational signatures of SNIa progenitors, as predicted by models. Mon. Not. R. Astron. Soc. 446, 1924–1930 (2015).

    ADS  Google Scholar 

  34. 34.

    Paxton, B. et al. Modules for Experiments in Stellar Astrophysics (MESA): binaries, pulsations, and explosions. Astrophys. J. Suppl. Ser. 220, 15–59 (2015).

    ADS  Google Scholar 

  35. 35.

    Eggleton, P. Approximations to the radii of Roche lobes. Astrophys. J. 268, 368–369 (1983).

    ADS  Google Scholar 

  36. 36.

    Ritter, H. Turning on and off mass transfer in cataclysmic binaries. Astron. Astrophys. 202, 93–100 (1988).

    ADS  Google Scholar 

  37. 37.

    MacDonald, J. Post thermonuclear runaway angular momentum loss in cataclysmic binaries. Astrophys. J. 305, 251–260 (1986).

    ADS  Google Scholar 

  38. 38.

    Schenker, K., Kolb, U. & Ritter, H. Properties of discontinuous and nova-amplified mass transfer in cataclysmic binaries. Mon. Not. R. Astron. Soc. 297, 633–647 (1998).

    ADS  Google Scholar 

  39. 39.

    Liu, W.-M. & Li, X.-D. Can the friction of the nova envelope account for the extra angular momentum loss in cataclysmic variables? Astrophys. J. 870, 22–30 (2019).

    ADS  Google Scholar 

  40. 40.

    Schreiber, M. R., Zorotovic, M. & Wijnen, T. P. G. Three in one go: consequential angular momentum loss can solve major problems of CV evolution. Mon. Not. R. Astron. Soc. 455, L16–L20 (2016).

    ADS  Google Scholar 

  41. 41.

    Schaefer, B. et al. Precise measures of orbital period, before and after nova eruption for QZ Aur. Mon. Not. R. Astron. Soc. 487, 1120–1139 (2019).

    ADS  Google Scholar 

  42. 42.

    Figueira, J. et al. Three-dimensional simulations of the interaction between the nova ejecta, accretion disk, and companion star. Astron. Astrophys. 613, A8–A17 (2018).

    Google Scholar 

  43. 43.

    Livio, M. & Truran, J. Spin-up and mixing in accreting white dwarfs. Astrophys. J. 870, 316–325 (1987).

    ADS  Google Scholar 

  44. 44.

    Prialnik, D. & Kovetz, A. The effect of diffusion on prenova evolution: CNO enriched envelopes. Astrophys. J. 281, 367–374 (1984).

    ADS  Google Scholar 

  45. 45.

    Kovetz, A. & Prialnik, D. The composition of nova ejecta from multicycle evolution models. Astrophys. J. 477, 356–367 (1997).

    ADS  Google Scholar 

  46. 46.

    Casanova, J., José, J., Garcia-Berro, E., Shore, S. N. & Calder, A. C. Kelvin–Helmholtz instabilities as the source of inhomogeneous mixing in nova explosions. Nature 478, 490–492 (2011).

    ADS  Google Scholar 

  47. 47.

    José, J., Shore, S. N. & Casanova, J. 123–321 models of classical novae. Astron. Astrophys. 631, A5–A13 (2020).

    Google Scholar 

  48. 48.

    Livio, M. & Pringle, J. The rotation rates of white dwarfs and pulsars. Astrophys. J. 505, 339–343 (1998).

    ADS  Google Scholar 

  49. 49.

    Brett, J. M. & Smith, R. C. A model atmosphere investigation of the effects of irradiation on the secondary star in a dwarf nova. Mon. Not. R. Astron. Soc. 264, 641–653 (1993).

    ADS  Google Scholar 

  50. 50.

    Günther, H. M. & Wawrzyn, A. C. A method to simulate inhomogeneously irradiated objects with a superposition of 1D models. Astron. Astrophys. 526, 117–125 (2011).

    ADS  Google Scholar 

Download references


We thank the dozens of observers who have worked diligently, over the past three decades, to test predictions of the hibernation scenario of cataclysmic variables. We also thank C. Tappert, L. Schmidtobreick, B. Schaefer and C. Knigge for valuable constructive criticisms of an earlier draft of this paper.

Author information




All authors shared in formulating the ideas underlying the simulations, the computer algorithms and the writing of this paper. Y.H. carried out the simulations and the data mining that produced the figures.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Yael Hillman or Michael M. Shara.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Additional information

Peer review information Nature Astronomy thanks Jordi Jose and Steven Shore for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

Publisher’s note Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Hillman, Y., Shara, M.M., Prialnik, D. et al. A unified theory of cataclysmic variable evolution from feedback-dominated numerical simulations. Nat Astron 4, 886–892 (2020).

Download citation

Further reading


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing