Home > astronomy > Students at London college identify new supernova in neighboring galaxy

Students at London college identify new supernova in neighboring galaxy

Students in London discovered a previously unobserved supernova in one of the Milky Way’s neighboring galaxies this week and it is bright enough to be seen through a small telescope.

The supernova is located in galaxy Messier 82 and is about 12 million light years away from Earth.

Supernovae are exploding stars caused either by a collapse of the star’s core or a resumpion in nuclear fusion there. They often emit so much light and radiation that they are more visible than the galaxy in which they occur.

Some supernovae are so potent that they discharge more energy during the period in which they are visible than our sun will produce in its entire history.

The show does not last forever, though. Supernovae, once the energy visible in the aftermath of the explosion begins to dissipate, become remnants.

The M82 supernova was an accidental find.

Undergraduates in a workshop aimed at learning how to operate the CCD camera on an 0.35-meter telescope. They aimed the telescope at M82 because it is well known as a visually interesting target for night-sky watching.

Their teacher, Steve Fossey, saw something that he did not recognize from prior observations. Not being sure what it was, Fossey compared the image he took with the onboard camera to a digital archive.

Because clouds were rolling in, the group did not have much time to continue observations of the new phenomenon. So they obtained a number of long exposure images through a variety of filters, which would be helpful in determining the object’s brightness. They also imaged the object with a second telescope so that any flaw with the automated controls or other instrumentation on the first telescope could be ruled out as a cause of the “star” they had seen.

Fossey then alerted astronomers around the world, including the International Astronomical Union’s Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams. The CBAT catalogues supernovae.

The M82 supernova, now known as SN2014J, is the closest supernova discovered since 1987, when Supernova 1987A was identified. That supernova is about 168,000 light years away.

SN1993J, another supernova that is about the same distance away as SN2014J, was discovered in 1993.

The team of students who first saw it were surprised by their find.

“One minute we’re eating pizza, then five minutes later we’ve helped to discover a supernova,” one of them, Tom Wright, said.

Messier 82 is formally identified as NGC3034 and popularly known as the “Cigar Galaxy.” It is five times more luminous than the Milky Way galaxy.


This mosaic image of M82 was obtained by the Hubble Space Telescope. Image courtesy Wikimedia.


These two images show the Messier 82 galaxy on, respectively, Dec. 10, 2013 and Jan. 21, 2014. Notice the bright light in the lower image. Images courtesy University College of London/University of London Observatory,. Photography by Steve Fossey, Ben Cooke, Guy Pollack, Matthew Wilde, and Thomas Wright.


This image shows a Celestron C35 telescope used by students at University College of London and University of London Observatory to discover supernova SN2014J. Image courtesy University College of London. Photograph by O. Usher.

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