Aug.30 Update: As of the evening of August 29th, observers are reporting the new supernova in the Pinwheel galaxy M 101 has reached about 11.5 magnitude and is still on track to possibly reach magnitude 11 – which would make it within reach of small backyard telescopes.
Stargazers have lucked out this year when it comes to seeing supernovae – the second brilliant, extragalactic exploding star, in only 2 months, is quickly rising in brightness and may become a target within reach of medium sized telescopes in the next few days.
On Wednesday, August 24, using the 48 inch Palomar robotic telescope in southern California- which is designed to observe and uncover astronomical events as they happen- astronomers noticed a new star, dubbed SN 2011fe, in the relatively nearby spiral galaxy M 101 just off the handle of the Big Dipper.
Located 21 million light years away, this is the closest Type 1a supernova seen in decades. a Type Ia supernova occurs when a white dwarf draws matter in from a companion star and dumps it on its surface until a runaway nuclear reaction ignites. While many such supernovae are discovered annually they tend to be much farther away at hundreds of millions or billions of light years away.
But now, having discovered this supernova so early after it has detonated, so close to Earth, has really excited the worldwide astronomical community – with many of them rushing to get a chance to observe it with the largest telescopes- including the Hubble Space Telescope too.
By catching the explosion so early on at so nearby, it may allow astronomers a rare opportunity to reveal details about the physical properties of the supernova.
Andy Howell, one of the leaders of the discovery team and astronomer at University of California at Santa Barbara said in a press release, “When you catch them this early, mixed in with the explosion you can actually see unburned bits from the star that exploded. 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.”
Now for us backyard skywatchers, the supernova also represents an exciting chance to see one of nature’s most violent events unfold before our eyes. Sky and Telescope reports its brightness is rising fast, rocketing from 17.2, when it was discovered on Wednesday, to 13.8 in just a day. While this is still really faint and only visible from larger amateur telescopes (12-16 inch aperture), indications are it may rise to 11th magnitude, which brings it well within range of much smaller and common instruments with 6 inch diameter mirrors.
To track SN 2011fe down, first locate its host galaxy known as M 101 or the Pinwheel, just off the handle of the Big Dipper (coordinates are 14h03m, 54°16’25″). BTW – 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 M51.
At 8th magnitude the Pinwheel is one of the brighter galaxies within reach of backyard astronomers. It is possible to spot with binoculars from cottage country, and looks like a really faint, fuzzy patch through the eyepiece of telescopes. Best time to see it is in the next few evenings before the Big Dipper sinks too low towards the horizon and the bright glare of the Moon returns into the skies of early September. The discovery team offers this detailed finders chart for identifying the supernova (inside red cross) amongst the other faint stars around the host galaxy.
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.