08 September 2011

Seeing the Supernova in the Pinwheel Galaxy

This week we can witness, first hand, a supernova that was just discovered in the Pinwheel Galaxy. A supernova is an explosion that marks the end of the life of a star, and usually these fiery events emit a great deal of light, brighter than anything else in the region for a short period of time. In this case, the star was a white dwarf of similar mass to our own Sun, but located 21 million light years away in a relatively-close galaxy. It is brightening and will be visible at its peak this weekend. However, you will still need patience and some kind of optical aid (telescope or binoculars) to see this.

The Pinwheel Galaxy (also known as M101) is located near the Big Dipper, quite high in the sky after sunset, so use the handle of the Big Dipper to help you located the Pinwheel Galaxy. Supernova discoverer Peter Nugent of Berkeley explains how to find the Supernova in this short video. To set expectations, the supernova will be a bright spot of light, similar to a star, so don't expect to see a vast region of glowing gas and colors, but nonetheless, you can be assured that the light you are seeing has been traveling for 21 million years directly from one of the most violent, cataclysmic places in our universe, at a moment just after a star's life has ended and new matter has been created. That is a good thought to ponder as you search for the supernova.

Good luck, and leave a message if you find it!


Paulie said...

The M101 supernova has been found by two Chicago Asrtonomers in the city, and by two more Chicago Astronomers in the suburbs. Tonight I hope to add my name to the list of CA's who have observed it.

The Urban Astronomer said...

Awesome Urban Astronomy, Paulie. I wish you clear skies and nice viewing!

Anonymous said...

I've been looking for several days, both with binoculars and a small telescope, but Alameda seems to be too hazy or too bright. If anyone knows of dark-sky places accessible by BART or AC, could they let us know?

And thank you for this interesting site.

The Urban Astronomer said...

hi Anonymous - Alameda faces the same challenges as I do here in San Francisco -- moisture in the air, and a lot of ambient light pollution. BART and AC Transit don't get you too far out of the Bay Area, so you will have some challenges. For me, the most convenient dark skies are along the coast (I live on the west side of SF), and the next-most convenient are in Marin County (but I drive a car there, not on public transit). In the East Bay, I have had very fine viewing on and around Mt. Diablo. Good luck and keep your eyes on the sky.

-- Paul

Paulie said...

Still waiting for my first look at it. Gave it a real good shot Monday night at Adler, but just about everything going against me. Full Moon, downtown, only 6" aperture, public setting with plenty of interruptions. So many people had heard about it and wanted to see the SN, and I felt bad that I couldn't deliver. I should catch it soon, but with the Moon gone, darker sky, bigger scope, and no spectators.