When I first learned about the “Superman” star, a type of cataclysmic variable star, I was excited to chase it down with a telescope, and I was also excited about researching the popular and scientific literature of these fascinating stars. The more I investigated, the more I felt like I had stumbled upon a treasure trove of celestial gems to explore. My reading revealed so many types of cataclysmic variables that I was giddy with excitement about an endless stream of fascinating objects with equally fascinating astrophysics to ignite my imagination. And having the spectacular eruption of one of these intriguing stars possibly being an inspiration behind a popular fictional superhero made the exploration all the more enticing.
Our story begins in 1934 with amateur astronomer John Prentice, who, like many of us, enjoyed observing every chance he could get. The weather in England had been warmer than usual during the winter of 1934, and it was during one of those evenings that Prentice decided to take a short drive to a farm about four miles from Stowmarket to enjoy observing the Geminid meteor shower from the peace and quiet of a darker location. In the early hours of December 13th, after taking a rest from his meteor observing, he gazed low toward the northeastern horizon and noticed that something was very wrong. Near the head of the constellation Draco and towards Hercules, he saw an unexpected 3rd magnitude star that looked very much out of place. Its presence changed the familiar look of the Draco’s head that he’d come to know so well. It did not take long for him to realize the importance of this sight, and he made haste to his car driving back to Stowmarket where he could phone his potential discovery of a new nova to the Greenwich Observatory so they could photograph it and obtain valuable spectral data.
The star was identified as DQ Herculis (Her), previously a dim 15th magnitude star. A week after the discovery it increased in brightness to magnitude 1.4, then very slowly dimmed over the next 90 days, and 30 days after that made a dramatic drop to well below naked eye brightness. Then in the next 45 days it reversed itself, increasing in brightness to the cusp of naked eye brightness. The nova received sizable scientific scrutiny over the coming months due to its uncharacteristic lengthy show in the evening skies. On July 3rd, 1934, Dr. Gerald Kuiper of the Lick Observatory in California noticed the nova surprisingly began to take on the appearance of a very close double star! It was believed that this was likely from multiple condensations in the star’s atmosphere that had blown off in two directions during the eruption, and now slowly developed into a surrounding shell of gas.
Today, this star is commonly referred to as Nova Herculis because of this extraordinary brightening in 1934.
In the United States, Nova Herculis captured the public imagination as the news media capitalized on this spectacular celestial event. In the midst of all this media attention, writer Jerry Siegel and illustrator Joe Shuster were busily revising the concept of an original superhero character they first published in 1933. This character, whom they called Superman, was a villain with telepathic powers, but he was gaining no traction with the public. When Nova Herculis was putting on its show, Siegel and Shuster made multiple revisions of the character, eventually settling on a new version of Superman who was not a villain, but rather a hero involved in fighting everyday crime and working to make the world a better place.
Some have wondered what might have spurred the radical change of the character of Superman from villain to time traveler from the future (in an intermediate revision) then finally to an alien from a distant exploding world?
In 2013, English professor Brad Ricca at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio provided us some evidence that suggests the creators of Superman may have been influenced by the conspicuous Nova Herculis event. Professor Ricca suggests that this celestial event, so prominent in the papers of the day, may have been a source of inspiration for changing the story line from a comic strip rendition of a time traveling human from Earth’s future to that of an alien from a distant planet called Krypton whose star exploded. Some evidence for his assertion includes how the early conic strip’s language closely mimicked language used by the media describing Nova Herculis, and how Superman’s co-creator Jerry Siegel was himself quite interested in amateur astronomy and would likely have been attentive to the Nova Herculis event (Jerry spearheaded a neighborhood astronomy club when he was a teenager).
Like all cataclysmic variables, DQ Her is a close binary star system where one star has exhausted all its fuel for nuclear fusion and has evolved into a highly dense white dwarf (see image at top of page). The other star is typically a low-mass main sequence red dwarf star, the most common type of star in our galaxy. Because the stars orbit each other in very close proximity, the strong gravitational field of the white dwarf siphons off material from the red dwarf star in a tear-drop shaped funnel of hot hydrogen gas that circles the white dwarf in an accretion disk that spirals down towards the white dwarf.
Just imagine what it would look like to see something like these close up! The two stars would be eclipsing each other twice in as little as an hour or two, and one of them would not be round, the other might look like it had a bright line across it if the accretion disk was edge on to the view, and that accreted matter could easily dominate the system being visually brighter than both stars together! The sudden increase in brightness of DQ Herculis and other cataclysmic variables is caused by flare-ups in the accretion disk or in matter accreted onto the surface of the white dwarf. In DQ Her, the strong magnetic field of the white dwarf disrupts the accretion and causes more complex brightening and fading in short periods of time. The star is one of a class of cataclysmic variables called intermediate polars.
DQ Her is still out there, but it’s faded back to a very dim 15th magnitude. The star is located at Right Ascension 18h 07m 30.3s and Declination 45º 51′ 33″. If you have a telescope under suitable skies capable of easily catching magnitude 14-15 stars (or smaller telescope with a good camera), then take some time to observe DQ Her. Remember to observe DQ Her and stars like it not just with your eye, but also with your imagination. Contemplating about how close these two small stars are, how impossibly fast they are rotating around each other, and how most of the light you are seeing may not be from either of the stars but from the matter being pulled off the red dwarf makes a formidable mental picture! When you actively engage your “mind’s eye” in your observing, you will find that it will become more fun and far more rewarding. And remember how this little star not only revealed a new subcategory of cataclysmic variables, but also how its spectacular eruption in 1934 may have influenced the storyline of one of the world’s greatest fictional superheroes – none other than Superman from the planet Krypton!
Publisher’s Note: This article was adapted from the forthcoming book “The Star Chasers” by William Paolini. Copyright © 2018 by William Paolini. All rights reserved.Share This: