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Thursday, January 23, 2014

New Supernova Erupts in Galaxy M82

A new supernova has erupted in M82, a nearby galaxy just 12 million light years away. The supernova has already reached magnitude 11.0, bright enough to be seen in small backyard telescopes. This is a Type 1a supernova which occurs when an old, super-dense white dwarf star pulls gas from a nearby companion star. When the mass of the white dwarf reaches 1.4x the mass of our sun the star blows itself to smithereens in a spectacular nuclear fusion event that releases more light and energy than over 400 billion stars. This is one bad explosion you don't want to be anywhere near. Fortunately, at a distance of 12 million light years we are safe.

This is one of the few times that such a bright supernova is easily seen in the northern hemisphere's night sky. It is the closest supernova to us in years. Supernovas are usually spotted in far distant galaxies, hundreds of millions or even billions of light years away, making them difficult to see without huge telescopes. This one in M82, just 12 million light years away, should be easy to see in backyard telescopes.

M82 is well positioned all night long after about 8:00 PM. You can find it along the line that diagonally connects the two bowl stars of the Big Dipper, Phecda and Dubhe.

Find M82 by running a diagonal line from Phecda to Dubhe in the bowl of the Big Dipper. Then extend that line an equal distance into the sky along the diagonal. That's where M82 is.
I do not know if the supernova is visible in binoculars. I will try to check tonight. But it should easily be visible in small telescopes. M82 is well placed all night long since the Big Dipper will be rising in the eastern sky shortly after sunset.

This is an annimation of M82 before and after the appearance of the Supernova.

Supernovas are nature's most powerful explosions. The bright dot you see above is just a single star, 12 million light years away, that has blown itself to smithereens in its old age. We should only die so gracefully. Try searching for it tonight. It is a rare wonder to behold such massive power at work in the universe.

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