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New Supernova Spotted in Whirlpool Galaxy

A cosmic celebrity gets some superstar treatment! This week while patrolling the night sky with their telescopes two French backyard astronomers independently managed to snag digital images of  a supernova explosion caught in the act – with all the action occurring within the Whirlpool galaxy 31 million light years away.

Newly discovered supernova appears to blink in before and after photos of the Whirlpool galaxy. credit: Stéphane Lamotte Bailey

On May 31st one amateur noticed a new star embedded within one of the spiral arms of the distant galaxy where there wasn’t any before. By the next evening other amateur stargazers and robotic supernova patrol telescopes clued in as well and the alarm was sounded to the worldwide observing community.  Sky and Telescope website is reporting that professional astronomers are scouring through images of the Whirlpool from international observatories including the Hubble space telescope taken weeks and even years before the supernova became visible to see what the precursor star might have looked like before it blew up. This will help us gain critical insight into the inner clockwork of these titanic event that are ranked as some of the most powerful forces in the universe.

Called a Type II Supernova, this new discovery is a member of an elite stellar club of heavyweights -supergiant stars at least 10 times larger than our sun that completely destroy themselves when they reach the end of their lives. Astronomers believe that a supernova explosion occurs about once a century in all spiral galaxies. However this galaxy appears to be testing that theory since this will be the third such stellar detonation to occur in the same galaxy in just 17 years!

The Whirlpool lives up to its name as a real showpiece in large aperture telescopes under dark skies. Known also as M 51, it was first observed by comet sleuth Charles Messier back in 1773 and was the first galaxy where a definite spiral structure was seen.  

Sky chart showing M 51 is located just off the Big Dipper handle; Credit: YourSky software

While you shouldn’t expect picturesque views of those spiral arms – a la Hubble – it’s just about visible  through suburban binoculars which will pick up the nucleus as a faint, tiny smudge. Meanwhile hints of sweeping spiral arms hugging a bright central core can be glimpsed with medium sized telescopes (6 to 8 inches)  under dark sky conditions. Careful observation also reveals a much smaller and dimmer companion galaxy that appears to be interacting with one of the Whirlpool’s spiral arms.

Being relatively bright and within reach of the average telescope owner –  it’s no wonder that the 60,000 light year wide Whirlpool is a popular ‘must-see’ deep- sky target for  stargazers.  Even though detailed views may be challenging, the ‘wow’ moment for observers is simply the fact that this distant object can be glimpsed with the human eye.

For those in the Northern Hemisphere, its perfectly positioned in the evening night sky to hunt down this time of the year. You’ll find the galaxy located just off the handle of the famous Big Dipper pattern of stars within the constellation Canes Venatici.

What about seeing the supernova? The star is way too faint  (14th magnitude) to be spotted with anything less than a medium to large sized telescope – at least ones with primary mirrors of 8 to 16 inches. On the other hand it should be a fairly easy target for backyard digital astroimagers with the right setup even in light polluted suburbia.  But because this supernova was caught early on, it may still have a surprise in store and continue to brighten a bit in the next week or so.  No guarantees but the only way to know for sure is for us to keep an eye on it. i know where I will be pointing my telescope the next clear night!

Andrew Fazekas, aka The Night Sky Guy, is a science writer, broadcaster, and lecturer who loves to share his passion for the wonders of the universe through all media. He is a regular contributor to National Geographic News and is the national cosmic correspondent for Canada’s Weather Network TV channel, space columnist for CBC Radio network, and a consultant for the Canadian Space Agency. As a member of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Andrew has been observing the heavens from Montreal for over a quarter century and has never met a clear night sky he didn’t like.

Comments

  1. [...] handle from where the June supernova (see my blog entry) exploded in the Whirlpool galaxy or [...]

  2. [...] this brightening star is just on the opposite side of the handle from where the June supernova (see my blog entry) exploded in the Whirlpool galaxy or [...]

  3. Carlos Ricas
    Brazil
    July 26, 2011, 2:56 pm

    Please! I have some questions: if this galaxy there are 130 millions light years away from here, so this explosion took place 130 million years ago? This image of the galaxy would be the situation of that time in the past?
    Forgive my grammar errors :-(

  4. mohamed ibrahim
    Egypt"Cairo
    June 7, 2011, 3:03 pm

    i saw this star when it exploded i don’t know how a saw it but i did it was like it was blinking then it just disappeared i couldn’t believe my self i thought it exploded but my friend told me that i cannot see a star explosion

  5. mohamed ibrahim
    Egypt"Cairo
    June 7, 2011, 3:02 pm

    i saw this star when it exploded i don’t know how a saw it but i did it was like it was blinking then it just disappeared i couldn’t believe my self i thought it exploded but my friend told me that i cannot see a star explosion it was very weard

  6. latrice
    west hartford
    June 7, 2011, 2:43 pm

    wow that llooks like in sides:)^3

  7. [...] via New Supernova Spotted in Whirlpool Galaxy – National Geographic News Watch. [...]

  8. Carlos Ricas
    Brazil
    June 6, 2011, 1:53 pm

    If the The Whirlpool Galaxy is estimated to be 23 ± 4 million light-years from the Milky Way Galaxy, So this supernova was indeed millions of years ago. Am I right?

  9. Humey
    Male', Maldives
    June 6, 2011, 3:56 am

    WOW!! that is absolutely beauuuutiful and sooo totally awesome! i’m so glad i lived to see this.. and congratulations on the discovery! you guys have made history just by backyard astronomy!! way to go =D

  10. Ima Ryma
    June 6, 2011, 3:48 am

    One day someone somewhere will spot
    A star destroyed within a blink.
    Visuals of such will be caught
    By those who watch the heavens wink.
    This star, relatively quite small,
    Will not have watchers in agog.
    A statistic and that is all,
    Hardly a mention in a blog.
    There never really will be known
    The impact that this star did give
    To orbs that orbited its zone.
    Did that star let some life forms live?

    As these stellar events do go,
    One day our own sun will blow.

  11. ahnaf rifat
    cantonment,rajshahi,bangladesh
    June 5, 2011, 10:13 pm

    this is just amazing and fantastic!!!! i want to know more……..i want to experience what is happening??? i wish to know everything.i wish i was a part of your team.

  12. ahnaf rifat
    cantonment,rajshahi,bangladesh
    June 5, 2011, 10:06 pm

    this is just amazing and fantastic!!!! I want to know more.i want to experience what is happening???? i wish to know everything.i wish i was a part of your team.

  13. John
    US
    June 5, 2011, 5:45 pm

    When did the supernova occur? Since it’s 31 million light years away, does that mean it occurred approximately 31 million years ago? Forgive my ignorance

  14. [...] the M51 supernova, designated SN 2011dh, is still bright enough to follow with a small [...]

  15. [...] la supernova de M 51, ​​designada SN 2011dh, todavía es bastante brillante para ser observada con un pequeño telescopio. Se anima, pues, los entusiastas del cielo a fotografiar la galaxia del [...]

  16. deed
    June 5, 2011, 12:04 am

    o em gee, this means only one thing – gasoline will get cheaper

  17. Patricia
    Canada
    June 4, 2011, 11:23 pm

    Fascinating galaxy!
    Thanks for Sharing.

  18. Blob
    Pictland
    June 4, 2011, 7:39 pm

    Coordinates: 13:30:05.08 +47:10:11.2 (J2000.0)

  19. Dave Andrews
    June 4, 2011, 6:20 pm

    For a good indication of the magnitude of the power, compare the size and brightness of the supernova with an almost identical spot nearest to it. The near one is a star in our own galaxy, It took the light from the supernova 31 million years to get here.

  20. assia
    algeria
    June 4, 2011, 4:42 pm

    just some one tell me how can we see something like this & not to believe in “God” how ?

  21. k Holmes
    Tampa Florida
    June 4, 2011, 3:20 pm

    OK! Help me with the southern location ……It”s looks sooooo bloody fantastic!!!!! K

  22. Kamilha
    June 4, 2011, 3:05 pm

    hi kamilha

  23. Donna Thomas
    Oregon
    June 4, 2011, 2:28 pm

    Pics of the the worlds beyond ours never cease to amaze and astound me. This one is so beautiful and magical! NatGeo ROCKS!!!!!!

  24. James Paul Williams
    Lebanon, MO USA Earth MilkyWay
    June 4, 2011, 1:53 pm

    Wow…how would a guy like me get the opportunity to see such sites.

  25. [...] Link Recommend on Facebook Tweet about it Subscribe to the comments on this post Tags: alien, conspiracy, illuminati, secret [...]

  26. [...] I posted my National Geographic story about the new supernova discovery in the Whirlpool galaxy (51) more than 10,000 people and counting [...]

  27. Hellen
    Singapore
    June 4, 2011, 1:02 pm

    This is just amazing !! I want to kno more.. I want to experience what is happening ? I wish to know everything. I wish i was a part of your team..

  28. Yonus Tahmas
    San Diego, CA
    June 4, 2011, 12:36 pm

    What a amazing job! Congrants to Hubble with his discovery. I think this discovery will acknowlege other amatuers to start looking out for other scientific things. It only takes 1 person to make a difference for EVERYBODY!

  29. Kathleen
    June 4, 2011, 12:06 pm

    This is beautiful… this is why i believe we all were created out of love because for such beauty to be created like this, God knew the meaning of true love and giving us the oppurtunity to take in such beauty and show his love is something all eyes should see and all hearts should take in.

    Live to love and be loved i always say…

  30. Carl
    June 4, 2011, 6:51 am

    woww la nature parle d’un créateur

  31. Debbie Sharpe
    United States
    June 4, 2011, 6:31 am

    Glorious!

  32. Arif Bright
    Bangladesh
    June 4, 2011, 6:15 am

    Wow…… Great news……

  33. nabeen
    nepal
    June 4, 2011, 6:02 am

    what kind of star died there was it like one of our sun?

  34. shvan issa mezori
    kordistan
    June 4, 2011, 5:41 am

    this photo make me ashock its so wonderful and amazing and thanks for national geografic for this decoveries ..thank you..

  35. sean
    ilford nsw
    June 4, 2011, 4:35 am

    supa cool

  36. kinshukjahid maxim
    dhaka,bangladesh
    June 4, 2011, 4:23 am

    fantastic

  37. Andrew louw
    Durban South Africa
    June 4, 2011, 4:04 am

    Thats so cool would we have been able to see it from durban SA

  38. samrina
    comilla
    June 4, 2011, 3:34 am

    plz new entry exit of the world

  39. leonor
    povoa de varzim
    June 4, 2011, 3:33 am

    cool

  40. carolyn mcnamee
    United Kingdom
    June 4, 2011, 3:32 am

    ASTOUNDINGLY beautiful- absolutely CLASS!!!!! That pic has made my day!!