Supernova update: it's peaking now!

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Sept. 7 2011 11:50 AM

Supernova update: it's peaking now!

A couple of weeks ago, astronomers spotted a star exploding in the nearby face-on spiral M101. They quickly determined it was a Type Ia, the kind used to calibrate the cosmic distance scale, and therefore a star of exceeding importance: we don't see them close by (well, if 20+ million light years is "close", which it is to astronomers) very often. This one promised to get bright enough to study extremely well, which will help us understand these "standard candles" better.

Astronomers at Oxford University got a great shot of the galaxy and exploding star this week using a telescope located in California:

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Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  

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The supernova is labeled. It was found by the Palomar Transient Factory, a group of folks looking for nearby supernovae, and was given the temporary name PTF 11kly; the official designation is SN 2011fe, the 136th supernova seen so far in 2011 (they're named alphabetically for a given year, so the first 26 are 2011a - z, the second 26 are 2011ba - bz, etc.). This image was taken using a 0.8 meter telescope at the Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope Network; that's a relatively small 'scope, which tells you this a pretty bright object!

In fact, it appears to be reaching its peak brightness right now, and should be visible in binoculars. If you have a good view of Ursa Major, currently in the northwest at sunset, finding it shouldn't be too difficult. Any decent star chart will show it (here's one on wikipedia, for example). It's raining here in Boulder (figures) but I'm hoping to get a chance to see it with my binoculars soon. Supernovae usually brighten for a couple of weeks and then fade more slowly, so if you can't see it tonight or tomorrow it's not critical, but of course the sooner you look the better.

Image credit: BJ Fulton/LCOGT. Tip o' the accreting white dwarf to Dan Vergano (you should follow him on Twitter for lots of sciencey updates).



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