White dwarf explodes in the galaxy next door: Type 1a supernova spotted in Galaxy M82

The stellar explosion is the closest to be spotted since 1987 and will provide a 'galactic yardstick' for astronomers judging distances across the universe

Exploding stars rarely make astronomers blink. Not because they’re incredibly jaded but simply because supernovae are a fairly common event. However, when a star explodes only 11.4 million light years away (practically next door in astronomical terms) they really sit up and take notice.

This is the case with supernova M82, a stellar explosion so close to Earth that it could soon be visible with binoculars. Named after its nearest galaxy, supernova M82 looks to be the brightest of its kind observed since 1987, and is expected to increase in brightness of the next two weeks.

Supernovae occur when a star – or more than one stars – explode, emitting in a matter of weeks as much energy as the Sun is expected to emit over its entire lifespan (around 10 billion years - 4.6 billion of which it’s gone through already).

There has been some contention over who was the first to spot the new supernova, with a team of amateur Russian astronomers in Blagoveshchensk and an astronomer from University College London, Dr Steve Fossey, both claiming to have been first on the scene.

After Fossey spotted the supernova on 21 January he emailed colleagues at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. There, graduate student Yi Cao undertook a spectral analysis of the object, confirming that it was a supernova and identifying it as a type Ia event.

"This particular galaxy is unusual and it's pretty close by to use so close, nearby supernovae of this type happen probably once every few decades," said Dr Fossey to the Today programme, explaining that the scientific community would have to now muster various telescopes to examine the supernova.

"This is a time critical opportunity. The object will remain bright for several weeks - and we need to conduct an autopsy on the patient to find out how it died."

This is especially exciting for astronomers as the 1987 supernova was a type II. Type I supernovas occur through a process known as ‘thermal runaway’ between a binary system (a pair of stars) whilst type IIs are triggered by the core collapse of a single, massive star.

The M82 Galaxy - before and after. The crosshairs in the picture on the right show the appearance of the supernova. Image credit: UCL/Steve Fossey/Ben Cooke/Guy POllack/Matthew Wilde/Thomas Wright

Type Ia supernovae – as this event is suspected to be – begin with a pair of stars orbiting one another. At least one of the pair will be a white dwarf (the dense remnant of a star the size of our own Sun after it has exhausted all its nuclear fuel) whilst the other will usually be a red giant.

The denser white dwarf will then begin pulling matter away from its larger neighbour, and when it has absorbed enough nuclear fusion will reignite inside its core and it will explode.

Type 1a supernovae are particularly useful for astronomers as their variations in brightness follow a well-established pattern. This allows them to be used as ‘standard candles’ – objects of known luminosity that allow distances to be judged on the cosmic scale.

Because galaxy M82 (also known as the Cigar Galaxy) is so close to us, astronomers have plenty of pictures of the region prior to the supernova’s appearance  and have already begun comparing these images, sifting through the galactic dust to find out more about how supernovae create different elements.

As Shri Kulkarni, an astronomer at the California Institute of Technology, told the journal Nature: “Dust has its own charms.”

More space news:
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager

£20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This full service social media ...

Recruitment Genius: Data Analyst - Online Marketing

£24000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We are 'Changemakers in retail'...

Austen Lloyd: Senior Residential Conveyancer

Very Competitive: Austen Lloyd: Senior Conveyancer - South West We are see...

Austen Lloyd: Residential / Commercial Property Solicitor

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: DORSET MARKET TOWN - SENIOR PROPERTY SOLICITOR...

Day In a Page

Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there