Star Light, Star Bright: Brilliant Supernova Erupts In M101 Galaxy
COLLEGE STATION – While you’re out this weekend basking in the region’s coolest temperatures since spring, Texas A&M University astronomers encourage you to gaze up at the night sky — specifically the Big Dipper’s handle, where one of the universe’s latest and most radiant stellar explosions has produced a star bright enough to outshine its entire galaxy.
The star, a Type Ia supernova used to calibrate cosmic distances, is known as SN 2011fe and is scheduled to peak this weekend as the brightest of its kind to be seen in the northern hemisphere in the past 40 years, according to Texas A&M’s Don W. Carona, manager of the Texas A&M Astronomical Observatory in the Department of Physics and Astronomy. Carona has been following its progress and documenting the experience with the help of time-lapse photography. It was this type of supernova — also called a thermonuclear supernova because of the similarity with hydrogen bomb explosions — that was key in discovering dark energy, the mysterious substance now known to make up more than 70 percent of the whole universe.
The supernova, the 126th to be seen thus far in 2011, is located in the Pinwheel Galaxy M101 and can be seen beginning just after sunset with a good pair of binoculars or a telescope just north of the last two stars in the Big Dipper’s handle, where it forms a roughly equilateral triangle with them. For the next few weeks, Carona says, its brilliance will exceed that of all of its fellow M101 inhabitants — hundreds of millions of stars — combined.
“This is absolutely amazing,” Carona says. “A supernovae event brighter than 2.5 billion suns, and I am very fortunate to be both a witness and an observational astronomer.
“Since the observatory at Texas A&M University is both a teaching and research facility, I take this as an opportunity to educate others on how powerful and surprising the universe around us can be when we least expect it. Stellar evolution is fascinating, and what better way to turn our attention than an awesome display such as this? I think no matter who you are, this is reason to pause and allow yourself to wonder what’s in the universe around us. Who knows where that sense of wonder may lead you next! The greatest thing you learn about astronomy is that anyone can contribute.”
The supernova was discovered two weeks ago mere hours after its onset by the Palomar Transient Factory, an automated supernova search being conducted with the 48-inch Oschin Schmidt Telescope at Palomar Observatory in southern California. The research team says it’s been 25 years since a supernova has occurred so close to Earth and that the last bright supernova, SN 1987a, which was involved in that aforementioned 1998 discovery of dark energy, was visible only in the Southern Hemisphere.
For more information on SN 2011fe, including a helpful finder chart, go to http://www.popastro.com/news/newsdetail.php?id_nw=67.
To learn more about Texas A&M Astronomy and the Texas A&M Observatory, visit http://astronomy.tamu.edu.