Emily LakdawallaJan 22, 2014

Super-close supernova in M82

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
Discovery image of supernova in M82 UCL / University of London Observatory / Steve Fossey / Ben Cooke / Guy Pollack / Matthew Wilde / Thomas Wright

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

Before-and-after comparison of M82 supernova
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). E. Guido, N. Howes, M. Nicolini

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

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.

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