Berkeley catches a supernova within hours of explosion

This is awesome. Within hours of it happening, Berkeley scientists observed a supernova in a nearby galaxy, a mere 21 million light years away. This is in relative time, naturally — technically, the light has been travelling 21 million years to reach us, so it happened 21 million years ago if there’s a way to measure a “fixed” time objectively. (That’s a topic for another blog post, though.)

This discovery was sheer serendipity — Berkeley just happened to be observing the Pinwheel Galaxy in the Big Dipper when a star now dubbed PTF 11kly went bang. Over the first three nights it’s already become twenty times brighter. Since this is the closest supernova we’ve ever been able to observe with modern-ish equipment, this unprecedented event has essentially put all hands on deck for observation. The Hubble’s being pointed at it now, and pretty much every earth-bound telescope too.

Catching supernovae so early allows a rare glimpse at the outer layers of the supernova, which contain hints about what kind of star exploded. “When you catch them this early, mixed in with the explosion you can actually see unburned bits from star that exploded! It is remarkable,” said Andrew Howell of UC Santa Barbara/Las Cumbres Global Telescope Network. “We are finding new clues to solving the mystery of the origin of these supernovae that has perplexed us for 70 years. Despite looking at thousands of supernovae, I’ve never seen anything like this before.”


“The best time to see this exploding star will be just after evening twilight in the Northern hemisphere in a week or so,” said Oxford’s Sullivan. “You’ll need dark skies and a good pair of binoculars, although a small telescope would be even better.”

I happen to have a small telescope. Two, actually. Galileoscopes. Just wish I had a way of docking a camera to it to get pics of my observations.

Berkeley catches a supernova within hours of explosion

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