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:
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
food + drink
Life and Style
Shoppers in Covent Garden, London, celebrate after they were the first to buy the iPhone 6, released yesterday
tech
News
Liam Payne has attacked the media for reporting his tweet of support to Willie Robertson and the subsequent backlash from fans
peopleBut One Direction star insists he is not homophobic
Life and Style
healthFor Pure-O OCD sufferers this is a reality they live in
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey
tvSeries 5 opening episode attracts lowest ratings since drama began
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck stars as prime suspect Nick Dunne in the film adaptation of Gone Girl
filmBen Affleck and Rosamund Pike excel in David Fincher's film, says Geoffrey Macnab
Life and Style
fashion
News
news
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
people
Travel
Warner Bros released a mock-up of what the new Central Perk will look like
travel
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham
booksLena Dunham's memoirs - written at the age of 28 - are honest to the point of making you squirm
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden sings his heart out in his second audition
tvX Factor: How did the Jakes - and Charlie Martinez - fare?
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

Year 2 Teacher - Maternity cover

£120 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Luton: Year 2 maternity cover, startin...

KS1 Teacher

£95 - £150 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Key Stage 1 teacher require...

Upper KS2 Teacher

£120 - £150 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Upper Key Stage 2 teacher ...

English Teacher

£110 - £130 per day + ?110 - 130: Randstad Education Reading: English Teacher ...

Day In a Page

A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments