New supernova is closest one to Earth in 25 years


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Astronomy buffs, hold onto your telescopes. Scientists have discovered a new supernova, or exploding star, in the Pinwheel Galaxy. And, in a few weeks, you might be able to see it for yourself with nothing but a good pair of binoculars.

Astronomers are especially excited about this newly discovered supernova -- although it’s been given the decidedly unjazzy name SN 2011fe -- because it’s a mere 21 million light-years away. In the language of astronomy, that puts it right in our backyard.


Peter Nugent, the senior scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory who originally spotted the exploding star, told the Los Angeles Times it has been 25 years since a supernova has occurred so close to Earth and that the last one was visible only in the southern hemisphere.

Another bonus: Scientists have never before caught a supernova so early in its life span.

Nugent discovered this supernova on Wednesday via the Palomar Transient Factory survey, in which he uses high-powered digital imaging systems to monitor the skies for new astronomical events. Check out the images above: On Monday (first image to the left), there was no supernova visible. By Tuesday, what looks like a bright speck was visible. And on Wednesday, that speck had grown considerably brighter.

‘There are going to be dozens of observatories following this,’ said Stan Woosley, professor of astrophysics at UC Santa Cruz. ‘It will probably be the most observed object in the sky.’

Nugent said the supernova is getting brighter by the minute, and increasing in brightness by sixfold each night.

‘Our best guess is it will continue to brighten until sometime in the first week or second week of September,’ he said. ‘But that’s if it’s a normal supernova. We think it’s normal, but we’re not sure because we’ve never seen one this early.’

The size of the supernova, which is related to its brightness, has also grown exponentially since it was discovered. Nugent said the supernova had grown from about the size of Earth -- that was pre-explosion -- to slightly larger than the distance between the sun and Jupiter by the time we spotted it. It will continue to grow over the next couple of weeks.


If SN 2011fe does act as Nugent expects, even people without access to super-high-tech telescopes will be able to see the supernova with small 4-inch telescopes or strong binoculars in really dark skies in early September.

It shouldn’t be too hard to find. The Pinwheel Galaxy sits north of the last two stars in the Big Dipper’s handle, forming a roughly equilateral triangle with them.

Nugent suggests looking just after sunset.


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--Deborah Netburn