Sophomore Finds a Bright Spot in Astronomy Study

Times Staff Writer

When it comes to celestial bodies, most college students would be content with a peaceful walk under the stars. But not California Institute of Technology sophomore Celina Mikolajczak, a 19-year-old engineering student who graduated from Coronado High School in 1987.

Mikolajczak recently used an 18-inch Schmidt telescope at Palomar Observatory to discover a supernova in the eastern portion of the constellation Leo. The supernova, now named SN 1989N, sits 137 million light-years--or 822,000,000,000,000,000,000 miles from Earth--in a large spiral galaxy called NGC 3646.

Compare Negatives

Astronomers using Palomar's 18-inch telescope don't actually peer through the device into the heavens. They instead compare a series of photographic negatives taken through the telescope at intervals.

The Caltech sophomore stumbled across photographic evidence that the supernova existed during an unsuccessful search for previously unknown comets and asteroids. Mikolajczak's sponsor in the astronomy program suggested that she abandon the search for comets and asteroids and concentrate on supernovas.

The first 14 negatives were uneventful, but a bright spot on the last piece of film made Mikolajczak sit up and take notice. What at first appeared to be a speck of dust on the film turned out to be the distant supernova. She quickly compared the negative to one exposed at an earlier date and, with help from more-experienced astronomers, confirmed its existence.

Mikolajczak's response to becoming an astronomical success: "Wow, I found something."

Astronomers discover about 14 to 20 supernovas each year, and Mikolajczak's discovery was the 14th this year. It was confirmed by Brian Marsden, director of the Minor Planet Center of the Smithsonian Astrophysics Observatory, and announced on IAU Circular No. 4823, dated Aug. 2, according to Caltech spokesman Robert Finn.

"They sent me a copy of the official circular that goes to the planetary science community," Mikolajczak said.

Too Low on Horizon

She would like to get a second look at the supernova, but for now it has dropped so low on the western horizon that it is no longer visible from Palomar.

"I've always had an interest in astronomy," said Mikolajczak, who is considering becoming an aeronautical engineer. "I thought it would be something neat to do, but I never had a chance to get my own telescope."

Mikolajczak has spent the past two summers in Caltech's Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship program, which gives students a chance to work alongside professional astronomers.

Her sponsor during the past two summers has been Eleanor Helin, a planetary scientist at Caltech's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.

Mikolajczak's parents, A.A. and Danuta, live in Coronado with two other children.

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