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:
Arts and Entertainment
Sydney and Melbourne are locked in a row over giant milk crates
art
News
Netherlands' goalkeeper Tim Krul fails to make a save from Costa Rica's midfielder Celso Borges during a penalty shoot-out in the quarter-final between Netherlands and Costa Rica during the 2014 FIFA World Cup
newsGoalkeepers suffer from 'gambler’s fallacy' during shoot-outs
News
A scene from the video shows students mock rioting
newsEnd-of-year leaver's YouTube film features playground gun massacre
Travel
travel
PROMOTED VIDEO
Voices
A family sit and enjoy a quiet train journey
voicesForcing us to overhear dull phone conversations is an offensive act
News
i100This Instagram photo does not prove Russian army is in Ukraine
News
Kenny Ireland, pictured in 2010.
peopleActor, from House of Cards and Benidorm, was 68
News
Morrissey pictured in 2013
people
Sport
sportVan Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
Environment
View from the Llanberis Track to the mountain lake Llyn
Du’r Arddu
environmentA large chunk of Mount Snowdon, in north Wales, is up for sale
Life and Style
Martha Stewart wrote an opinion column for Time magazine this week titled “Why I Love My Drone”
lifeLifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot... to take photos of her farm
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
i100
Life and Style
The director of Wall-E Andrew Stanton with Angus MacLane's Lego model
gadgetsDesign made in Pixar animator’s spare time could get retail release
News
peopleGuitarist, who played with Aerosmith, Lou Reed and Alice Cooper among others, was 71
Environment
Tyred out: should fair weather cyclists have a separate slow lane?
environmentFormer Labour minister demands 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists
News
people
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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

VB.Net Developer - £40k - Surrey - WANTED ASAP

£35000 - £40000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: .Mid Level V...

Digitakl Business Analyst, Slough

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Competitive Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: Dig...

Mechanical Estimator: Nuclear Energy - Sellafield

£40000 - £50000 per annum + Car, Medical, Fuel + More!: Progressive Recruitmen...

Dynamics NAV Techno-Functional Consultant

£50000 - £60000 per annum + benefits: Progressive Recruitment: An absolutely o...

Day In a Page

Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

In grandfather's footsteps

5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

Martha Stewart has flying robot

The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

A tale of two presidents

George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

The dining car makes a comeback

Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

Gallery rage

How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

Eye on the prize

Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

Women's rugby

Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices