Nova Observing Program

Nova Observing Program Coordinator 

Raymond B. Howard
3939 Greenwood Ave.
Oakland CA 94602


©David A. Hardy,, Used with permission.


Welcome to the Astronomical League’s Nova Observing Program, which encourages locating, observing, sketching and/or imaging of Novae, Supernovae, and Dwarf Novae. It involves the use of online resources of the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO) and provides valuable scientific data for astronomers and researchers.

A Nova is caused by a nuclear explosion on the surface of a star within a binary star system, resulting in the sudden appearance of a “new” star which slowly fades over weeks or months. Novae are a fairly common occurrence within our galaxy. Some are recurrent, with many years between outbursts. They can appear anywhere in the sky but are most often discovered not far from the galactic center in Sagittarius.

A Supernova occurs during the final stages of a massive star’s life, causing it to be destroyed in a final gigantic explosion. Supernovae are immensely bright, but much rarer than regular novae. In the Milky Way Galaxy, the last one directly observed was recorded in 1604 (known as Kepler’s Supernova). They are frequently seen to occur in nearby galaxies.  Supernovae generate so much energy that they can briefly outshine their parent galaxies.

A Dwarf Nova is a type of cataclysmic variable star, with lower luminosity than regular novae. Typically, a white dwarf primary star pulls material from a red dwarf secondary. This forms an “accretion disk” which then explodes, causing bright outbursts on a semi-regular basis. Examples of Dwarf Novae include U Gem, SS Cyg, Z Cam, SU UMa. Rarely, Dwarf Novae can erupt into full-fledged Novae, as V392 Per did in April 2018, becoming Nova Persei 2018.

Novae, Supernovae, and Dwarf Novae can all become bright enough to be observed and/or imaged with amateur telescopes. Observations involve estimating the magnitude in comparison to ordinary stars of fixed brightness. For those amateurs with CCD equipment, photometric methods may be used to measure the intensity of the Nova.

Because most of the AAVSO procedures are the same, you are encouraged to pursue the Astronomical League’s Variable Star Observing Program concurrently while pursuing this Observing Program. The Nova Observing Program will require some patience, as opportunities for observing can be sporadic, especially for northern observers. On the other hand, you don’t need the darkest or clearest skies, or even a moonless night to observe many of the brighter Novae.

Pictured above is an artist’s conception of RS Ophiuchi, a recurring nova system that explodes to sudden brightness every 20 years or so. You’re encouraged to make RS Ophiuchi a part of your observing list, you may be lucky enough to catch an outburst!  (Artwork © David A. Hardy,, used with permission.)

Requirements and Rules

This certification is available to members of the Astronomical League, either through their local astronomical society or as members at large.  If you are not a member and would like to become one, check with your local astronomical society, search for a local society on the Astronomical League Website, or join as a Member-at-Large.

To qualify for the AL’s Nova Observing Program certifications, you need to complete these observing requirements:

  1. Silver certificate: 50 total observations of at least five different objects, with at least one object chosen from each of the three classes (Nova, Supernova, Dwarf Nova), and a minimum of two observations of each object.
  2. Gold certificate and pin: 100 total observations (including those for the Silver Certificate) of at least ten different objects, with at least two objects from each of the three classes (Nova, Supernova, Dwarf Nova), and a minimum of two observations of each object.
  3. Observations must include the object name/designation, estimated magnitude, your location including latitude and longitude, and the date and time (UT). All observations must also be submitted to AAVSO using their regular reporting facilities (WebObs or file upload). Click here for a detailed description of AAVSO reporting (in PDF format).
  4. If observing visually, one field sketch is required of each object. Include at least four other stars in the field of view and identify at least two. Indicate the magnitudes of the comparison stars used, and indicate North and either East or West on your sketch. Also indicate the ID of the AAVSO comparison chart, or the name of the other comparison chart used. For a Supernova within an external galaxy, also make a rough drawing of the galaxy, if visible. You may use the attached sketch log template (PDF format, MS Word format), or a sketch log sheet of your own design that provides all of the required information.  In addition to the sketch log, you may also want to keep a log containing all your observations. Here is a sample Excel spreadsheet, or you may use one of your own design.
  5. If using a CCD or imaging, follow the AAVSO procedures for submission. Photometry requires more expensive equipment and is more time-consuming but can yield precision results that are not reachable by visual observers. See the “AAVSO Guide to CCD Photometry” for more details.
  6. If an object you are observing does not appear in the AAVSO database, contact the Nova Observing Program Coordinator.

A 6-inch telescope should be sufficient for observing most Novae and Dwarf Novae. Extragalactic Supernovae tend to be more difficult, so an 8 to 10-inch telescope may be required.  Optional: try using a nebula filter (O-III or other narrowband). Does the Nova appear to gain brightness relative to other stars in the field? See this article for more information:

Submission  for Certification

To receive your Nova Observing Program certification, mail or email a copy of your observation logs to the AL Nova Observing Program Coordinator. An AAVSO printout of your observations is acceptable, along with scans of your sketches if observing visually. Include your name, mailing address, email, phone number, and society affiliation. Also, include your AAVSO Observer Code so submissions can be verified. Upon verification of your observations, your certificate (and pin for the Gold certification) will be forwarded either to you or your society’s Awards Coordinator, whomever you choose.

Upon verification of your submission and of your active membership in the Astronomical League, your recognition (certificate, pin, etc.) will be sent to you or to the awards coordinator for your society, as you specified.  Your name will also appear in an upcoming issue of the Reflector magazine and in the Astronomical League’s online database.  Congratulations.  Good luck with your next observing challenge.

Nova Observing Program Coordinator:

Raymond B. Howard
3939 Greenwood Ave.
Oakland CA 94602


Citizen Science:  If you enjoyed this Observing Program, and look forward to doing more observations to submit to the national or international database, then we invite you to participate in the Astronomical League’s Citizen Science Program.  This is an extension of this Observing Program and only requires you to do what you have been doing; observing and submitting those observations.


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