The Effect of Composition on Nova Ignitions

Research paper by Ken J. Shen, Lars Bildsten

Indexed on: 14 May '08Published on: 14 May '08Published in: Astrophysics


The accretion of hydrogen-rich matter onto C/O and O/Ne white dwarfs in binary systems leads to unstable thermonuclear ignition of the accreted envelope, triggering a convective thermonuclear runaway and a subsequent classical, recurrent, or symbiotic nova. Prompted by uncertainties in the composition at the base of the accreted envelope at the onset of convection, as well as the range of abundances detected in nova ejecta, we examine the effects of varying the composition of the accreted material. For high accretion rates and carbon mass fractions < 0.002, we find that carbon, which is usually assumed to trigger the runaway via proton captures, is instead depleted and converted to 14N. Additionally, we quantify the importance of 3He, finding that convection is triggered by 3He+3He reactions for 3He mass fractions > 0.002. These different triggering mechanisms, which occur for critical abundances relevant to many nova systems, alter the amount of mass that is accreted prior to a nova, causing the nova rate to depend on accreted composition. Upcoming deep optical surveys such as Pan-STARRS-1, Pan-STARRS-4, and the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope may allow us to detect the dependence of nova rates on accreted composition. Furthermore, the burning and depletion of 3He with a mass fraction of 0.001, which is lower than necessary for triggering convection, still has an observable effect, resulting in a pre-outburst brightening in disk quiescence to > Lsun and an increase in effective temperature to 6.5e4 K for a 1.0 Msun white dwarf accreting at 1e-8 Msun/yr.