Supernova dazzles US scientists
Thursday 08 September 2011
California astronomers have found the closest, brightest supernova of its kind in 25 years, catching the glimmer of a tiny self-destructing star a mere 21 million light years from Earth and soon visible to amateur skywatchers.
The discovery, announced today, was made in what was believed to be the first hours of the rare cosmic explosion using a special telescope at the Palomar Observatory near San Diego and powerful supercomputers at a government laboratory in Berkeley.
The detection so early of a supernova so near has created a worldwide stir among astronomers, who are clamoring to observe it with every telescope at their disposal, including the giant Hubble Space Telescope.
Scientists behind the discovery at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the University of California at Berkeley say the extraordinary phenomenon - labeled by the rather obscure designation PTF 11kly - will likely become the most-studied supernova in history.
"It is an instant cosmic classic," said Peter Nugent, the senior scientist at UC Berkeley who first spotted it.
PTF 11kly occurred in the Pinwheel Galaxy, located in the Ursa Major constellation, better known as the Big Dipper. At a distance of roughly 21 million light years, that puts it, on a cosmic scale, practically "in our backyard," Nugent said.
By comparison, most supernova found with the 48-inch Palomar telescope are about 1 billion light years away and far too faint for the general public to see, Nugent said.
Initially detected on August 24, the PTF 11kly has literally grown brighter by the minute and was already 20 times more luminous in just one day.
It is expected to reach its peak sometime between September 9 and 12, when it will become visible to stargazers using a good pair of binoculars or small telescope.
It will appear, blueish-white, just above and to the left of the last two stars in the Big Dipper handle.
"There are billions of stars in a galaxy. This supernova will outshine them all this weekend," Nugent told Reuters.
Supernovae of this type, classified as a "Type 1a" event, occur when a super-dense white dwarf star, about the size of Earth but containing somewhat more mass than our own sun, explodes like a gargantuan thermonuclear bomb.
The blast hurls matter in all directions at nearly one-tenth the speed of light - matter that ultimately will form the building blocks of other stars and planets.
Such events, accounting for about one in five of all supernovae, are also used by scientists in measuring the expansion of the universe.
Similar supernovae are known to have occurred in the Pinwheel Galaxy at least three times before - in 1909, 1951 and 1970. But instruments available to observe this one are far more sophisticated, and its early detection is giving scientists an unprecedented glimpse of such phenomena.
For astronomers, the royal straight flush of supernovae are those occurring in our own galaxy, which last happened in 1572 and was visible with the naked eye for months, Nugent said.
Records from antiquity indicate that an even more spectacular supernova in the Milky Way lit up the sky in 1006 A.D., Nugent said.
- 1 The difference between a migrant and refugee, in one sentence
- 2 Miley Cyrus calls out hypocrisy of women’s nipples being taboo
- 3 Celebrity Big Brother 2015: Tila Tequila kicked off show after 'describing Hitler as a good man'
- 4 iPhone 5c to be discontinued, no iPhone 6c to replace it
The difference between a migrant and refugee, in one sentence
Spain accused of 'provocation' after letting Russian submarine refuel off Gibraltar
Allonautilus scrobiculatus: World's 'rarest' creature spotted for only the third time ever
Miley Cyrus calls out hypocrisy of women’s nipples being taboo
Celebrity Big Brother 2015: Tila Tequila kicked off show after 'describing Hitler as a good man'
Climate change: 2015 will be the hottest year on record 'by a mile', experts say
Labour leadership: Jeremy Corbyn accused of 'deluding' young supporters with 'claptrap'
'Women only' train carriages: Jeremy Corbyn unveils radical move to tackle public harassment
Black holes are a passage to another universe, says Stephen Hawking
Iain Duncan Smith 'should resign over disability benefit death figures', says Jeremy Corbyn
Iain Duncan Smith calls for urgent ESA overhaul as part of drive to cut down welfare costs
£18000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Executive or Senior Sal...
£40000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...
£22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This industry leading company produces h...
£20000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT provider for the educat...