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Headshot of Emily Lakdawalla

Super-close supernova in M82

Posted by Emily Lakdawalla

22-01-2014 11:31 CST

Topics: Hubble Space Telescope, pretty pictures, astronomy, stars and galaxies, optical telescopes

The astronomy world is all a-twitter this morning over the discovery of a new supernova in M82, a galaxy that's in our astronomical backyard, "only" 12 million light-years away. And early word is that it appears to be a Type Ia supernova, the kind that's used as a standard candle to measure the expansion of the universe. According to Nick Howes at Remanzacco Observatory, "This is the closest supernova to Earth since the Supernova 1987A and the closest supernova Type Ia since SN 1972E." Even better, the discovery was made by students working with astrophysicist Steve Fossey at University College London.

Discovery image of supernova in M82

UCL / University of London Observatory / Steve Fossey / Ben Cooke / Guy Pollack / Matthew Wilde / Thomas Wright

Discovery image of supernova in M82

Remanzacco Observatory shared a nice pair of comparison images of M82 before and after the supernova:

Before-and-after comparison of M82 supernova

E. Guido, N. Howes, M. Nicolini

Before-and-after comparison of M82 supernova
This animation showing a comparison between the Remanzacco Observatory's confirmation image of the supernova in M82 (from January 22, 2014) and an archive image by the 2-meter telescope FTN - LCOGT (from November 22, 2013).

I'm no astronomer, so to tell you more of the story of the discovery I'll send you to SkyMania, and to fill in a little more background I'll send you to Universe Today, and to tell you how to observe it yourself (you'll need a small telescope, but it may brighten enough to be visible in binoculars) I'll send you to Sky & Telescope.

Supernovas are one kind of natural phenomenon that set me daydreaming. So enormous, so mind-bogglingly violent, this little flash could have destroyed whole solar systems, and sterilized many more. And yet out of their destruction, rebirth: the seeding of their galaxy with the heavy elements from which life-building molecules and planet-building rocks are made. Life out of death, annihilation begetting creation, the goddess Kali incarnate.

My daydreaming made me wonder: if we're receiving photons from this supernova, will we receive particles, now or in the future? I asked my astronomer colleagues on Twitter, and in short, the answer is no.

Then this tweet from Space Telescope Science Institute's Max Mutchler made me sit up and take notice:

Here's the Hubble mosaic. Click through twice to see it in all its 22 Megabytes of glory. But if you want to dig through to find the supernova's progenitor, it's best to start with the original data.

M82, the Cigar Galaxy

NASA, ESA, and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

M82, the Cigar Galaxy
The Hubble Space Telescope captured this enormous mosaic of M82, located in Ursa Major, in 2006. The galaxy is remarkable for its bright blue disk, webs of shredded clouds, and fiery-looking plumes of glowing hydrogen blasting out of its central regions.

Astronomers are now asking for help from amateurs who may have imaged M82 in the last week:

Treat your astronomer friends kindly over the next few days, they may be especially sleep-deprived.

See other posts from January 2014


Or read more blog entries about: Hubble Space Telescope, pretty pictures, astronomy, stars and galaxies, optical telescopes


conkbonk: 01/22/2014 12:11 CST

Oh Katie... it's okay... sleep tight. ...and light years is a measurement of distance, not time. :-)

John Thro: 01/22/2014 01:48 CST

conkbonk: The supernova is 12 million light years away, and the fact that we're only seeing it explode today means that it exploded 12 million years ago.

Gerald Eichstaedt: 01/22/2014 04:20 CST

A few words for those, who like to know a little more about type Ia supernovae: They are usually thought to be the result of the thermonuclear explosion of a white dwarf orbiting a giant close by. While expanding, the giant looses mass to the white dwarf, until the carbon of the white dwarf undergoes nuclear fusion in a runaway process. Supernova-types are distiguished by their spectra. More details, see

morganism: 01/23/2014 12:24 CST

From S&T comments. Having a web meet, and they have the SN in the background pic without realizing it was there! Getting binocs for the Red Spot out now....

MtnBiker: 01/23/2014 12:25 CST

Emily, I inadvertently took a photo of the supernova on Jan 15th at 23:45 MT. I would like to know how I can verify this, as I seem to have captured the SN a week before discovery. I may have it in the very early stages. Can you help me?

morganism: 01/23/2014 02:59 CST

I understand why no neutrinos now, but anything from the gravity wave detectors ?

Michael Richmond: 01/23/2014 04:04 CST

HST images before the explosion show no sign of a progenitor, as one would expect. See Pre-discovery X-ray images from the Chandra space telescope likewise show no emission from progenitor: MtnBiker, I can help you to verify that your image does or does not show the SN. Please contact me directly via E-mail:

Those: 02/12/2014 10:59 CST

This supernova took play 12 million years ago. This was a type Ia supernova. This is caused by a white dwarf orbiting a Red Giant star. The white dwarf pulls the outer ring of Hydrogen off the Red Giant. This increases temperature and density inside the core of the star. The temperature then reaches a high enough temperature to start nuclear fusion of Carbon. A large percent of the star undergoes fusion in a short time releasing a large amount of energy, which is too great for the gravity of the star to hold back, thus creating one of the most spectacular sights in the universe. @conkbonk As you are correct in stating that a light-year is a measurement of distance, the twitter post by katie is also correct. A light-year is the distance light travels in one year. Thus if this supernova was 12 million light years away, the star exploded 12 million years ago as it took taht long for the light to reach us.

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