M82 Supernova

A supernova is discovered in M82, by accident. Click for larger. Image via University of London

This is awesome! Imagine it, a demonstration to undergrads at the University of London leads to a discovery of a supernova – talk about luck!

Before we go to far M82 is:

  • Located in Ursa Major (aka: The Big Dipper)
  • Magnitude: 8.4 (easily visible with binoculars of better)
  • Distace (about): 3.5 Mega-parsecs / 12 Million light-years

Get more information about M82 at SEDS.

From the University of London:

Students and staff at UCL’s teaching observatory, the University of London Observatory, have spotted one of the closest supernovae to Earth in recent decades. At 19:20 GMT on 21 January, a team of students — Ben Cooke, Tom Wright, Matthew Wilde and Guy Pollack — assisted by Dr. Steve Fossey, spotted the exploding star in nearby galaxy Messier 82 (the Cigar Galaxy).

The discovery was a fluke — a 10 minute telescope workshop for undergraduate students that led to a global scramble to acquire confirming images and spectra of a supernova in one of the most unusual and interesting of our near-neighbor galaxies.

The weather was closing in, with increasing cloud,” Fossey says, “so instead of the planned practical astronomy class, I gave the students an introductory demonstration of how to use the CCD camera on one of the observatory’s automated 0.35-meter telescopes.”

The students chose M82, a bright and photogenic galaxy as their target, as it was in one of the shrinking patches of clear sky. While adjusting the telescope’s position, Fossey noticed a ‘star’ overlaid on the galaxy which he did not recognize from previous observations.

They inspected online archive images of the galaxy, and it became apparent that there was indeed a new star-like object in M82. With clouds closing in, there was hardly time to check: so they switched to taking a rapid series of 1 and 2 minute exposures through different colored filters to check that the object persisted, and to be able to measure its brightness and color.

Meanwhile, they started up a second telescope to obtain a second source of data, to ensure the object was not an instrumental artifact. By about 19:40 GMT, the cloud cover was almost complete, but it was just possible to make out the new object in the second data set: this was a real astronomical source.

There were no online reports of any prior discoveries of this object, so it seemed clear that this was a new transient source, such as a supernova. It was important to move quickly to alert astronomers worldwide to confirm the discovery, and most importantly, to obtain a spectrum — which would confirm whether or not it was a supernova, rather than some other phenomenon, such as an asteroid that happened to lie in front of the galaxy.

Fossey prepared a report for the International Astronomical Union’s Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams, the organization that catalogues supernovae. He also alerted a US-based supernova search team who have access to spectroscopic facilities.

Spectra collected by astronomers at other observatories around the world suggest that it is a Type Ia supernova, caused by a white dwarf star pulling matter off a larger neighboring star until it becomes unstable and explodes.

The IAU’s official report, issued the following day, confirms Fossey as the official discoverer, and gives the supernova the designation SN 2014J.

The two accompanying images show the Cigar Galaxy before and during the event. Above, an image taken on 10 December 2013, and below, the image taken by the students on 21 January 2014. A bright spot of light (labeled) is clearly visible, even though the exposure is shorter and the rest of the galaxy appears darker.

The supernova is one of the nearest to be observed in recent decades. The closest by far since the invention of the telescope was Supernova 1987A in February 1987, located at a distance of 168,000 light-years. This discovery is more distant at around 12 million light-years, about the same as the 1993 discovery of a supernova in nearby Messier 81.

Ben Cooke: “The chances of finding anything new in the sky is astronomical but this was particularly astounding as it was one of the first images we had taken on this telescope. My career plan had been to continue my studies in astrophysics. It’s going to be hard to ever top this though!”

Guy Pollack: “It was a surreal and exciting experience taking images of the unidentified object as Steve ran around the observatory verifying the result. I’m very chuffed to have helped in the discovery of the M82 supernova.”

Tom Wright: “One minute we’re eating pizza then five minutes later we’ve helped to discover a supernova. I couldn’t believe it. It reminds me why I got interested in astronomy in the first place”

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