Closest Supernova In 25 Years Discovered Accidentally By Students While Taking A Telescope Workshop

By Ajit Jha on January 23, 2014 12:26 PM EST

Supernova Cigar Galaxy
This image shows the the supernova recently spotted in Messier 82 by a group of UCL students. (Photo: University College London)

A team of University of London students accidentally spotted a once-in-a-lifetime astronomical event on January 21: a supernova, or exploding star in Messier 82, a nearby galaxy also known as the Cigar galaxy. Undergraduates Ben Cooke, Tom Wright, Matthew Wilde, and Guy Pollack were attending a 10 minute telescope workshop with Dr. Steve Fossey when they saw the explosion.

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Instead of a planned practical astronomy class, as the weather was turning inclement, Fossey gave them "an introductory demonstration of how to use the CCD camera on one of the observatory's automated 0.35-metre telescopes," he said. The students chose to observe M82, a bright and photogenic galaxy. While they were making their observations, Fossey noticed a suspicious 'star' not seen in earlier observations. Several more observations and verifications later including the measurement of its color and brightness verified that the new object was real astronomical source.

Afterwards, Fossey submitted the observation to the International Astronomical Union's Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams, the organization that supervises astronomical nomenclatures. They verified it as a supernova, among some of the closest ones to be observed since 1987. The closest supernova observed so far was Supernova 1987A, 168,000 light years away, spotted in February of 1987. This week's discovery is much farther away: 12 million light years (which is about the same distance as another supernova discovered in 1993, also near Messier 8. 

There were no immediate reports of anyone else making the discovery. So Fossey moved quickly to let astronomers worldwide know what he uncovered. As of now, this supernova is identified by the temporary name of SN_J09554214+6940260 and has been classified as a young, reddened, Type Ia supernova that involves explosion of a white dwarf in binary star systems. It looks bright when viewed by a telescope and may likely be viewed by binoculars as it brightens further, according to Skymania. The supernova has been confirmed by other astronomers and observatories including the Remanzacco Observatory in Italy.  

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