posted September 7, 2011

Hope Class Has Opportunity to See Historic Supernova

Dr. Peter Gonthier's Night Sky class captures a photo of a rare supernova in action.

The stars above seem fixed and constant, but the students in Dr. Peter Gonthier's Night Sky class have been experiencing a historic opportunity to see a dramatic change. 

They've been using the college's Harry F. Frissel Observatory to watch a supernova in action, the closest in nearly a quarter century, and to capture an image of it (shown by blue arrow in the accompanying graphic). 

"These events are rare," said Dr. Gonthier, a professor of physics.  "The last close supernova was in 1987 - that occurred in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a small irregular galaxy near our Milky Way about 179,000 light years away." 

In a sense, they've also traveled back in time.  Although relatively close in stellar terms, the supernova is 126 million trillion miles away.  Given how long it takes light to travel, the explosion took place 21 million years ago. 

Junior Russell Fyfe of Libertyville, Ill., is working with the class as a teaching assistant this year.  Majoring in integrated science education, he was a student in the class last year, and enjoyed it so much that he signed on as a TA to see and learn more. 

"This is exactly why I wanted to TA for this class, to be able to utilize the telescopes at Hope and see amazing night sky objects while I have the chance," he said.  "When you first see it, it isn't exactly what you expect it to be, it just looks like another star in the sky and it is not until you think about it when you realize how amazing it is." 

 "21 million years ago it exploded, and we are seeing it now.  How is that not an incredible thing to see?" Fyfe said.  "It also isn't until you look at what the star looked like before the supernova when you realize how bright this actually is." 

The supernova, named PTF 11kly, was discovered by a computer using a California-based telescope on August 24.  It occurred in a pinwheel galaxy known as M101. 

It's a sign of the magnitude of the supernova that it's visible. 

Referring to the image captured by the Hope group, Dr. Gonthier noted, "With the exception of the supernova, all the bright dots are stars within our own galaxy, the Milky Way.  Our telescope cannot resolve individual stars in M101.  Yet the supernova is as bright as the center of M101.  It is a supernova Type 1a that are the brightest and typically will outshine the entire galaxy, shining brighter than 100 billion stars." 

After taking millions of years to reach earth view, the event will pass relatively quickly.  "The supernova will achieve peak brightness on Thursday," Dr. Gonthier said.  "Then fade away in the next week or so."