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 resumption 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 sufficiently dissipates, 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 aimed the telescope at M82 because it is well known as a visually interesting target for night-sky watching.
Their teacher, Dr. Steven J. 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.
“We pointed the telescope at Messier 82 -- it's quite a bright galaxy, quite photogenic. But as soon as it came up on screen, it didn't look right to me," Dr. Fossey said in an interview with BBC News. "We fired up another telescope, we got another frame -- and that was when we knew it was a supernova."
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.
Another supernova, SN1993J, that is about the same distance away as SN2014J was discovered in 1993.
The team of students who first saw SN2014J 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.