Chance To Spot Rare Supernova Fading Fast

Oct 16, 2011
Originally published on October 16, 2011 10:41 am

Supernova 2011fe is bringing out the stargazers. It's one of the brightest supernovas in the last century and it's now visible. It's the kind of event amateur astronomers dream of.

The supernova will last for more than a decade, but it won't stay this bright. Within the next week, the light that took 21 million years to reach earth will fade out of view for amateur astronomers.

On a Saturday night in the desert town of Yucca Valley, Calif., two hours east of Los Angeles and far away from the big city lights, the town's community center parking lot is buzzing. There's a group of excited backyard astronomers like Carolina Liechtenstein.

"I spend hours every night with my dog and maybe some popcorn and just look at the stars. I haven't turned on my TV lately," she says. "I get goose bumps."

Liechtenstein's guides for the Saturday stargazing are two professional astronomers. Paul McCudden and Dean Arvidson set up three highly sensitive cameras that look like giant telescopes. They're projecting the images onto a large screen.

By day, they teach courses in physics and astronomy at Los Angeles City College. For this crowd, Arvidson and McCudden take to the mic and play tour guides of deep space.

"This is probably a few billion stars right there, and then that one single star can be as bright as a few billion stars," McCudden says.

This supernova is just above the Big Dipper. It's a Type 1a, meaning it formed from a thermonuclear explosion of a white dwarf star.

The star gazers start to get an image of Messier 101, the Pinwheel Galaxy, on their screen. Within that galaxy, McCudden points to a faint speck of light — the supernova.

"This is pretty rare. You don't see supernovas this bright very often," he says.

Dr. Peter Nugent from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory was looking at that same galaxy this past August when he discovered the supernova, just hours after light from the explosion reached earth.

"This is the fifth-brightest supernova in the last 110 years," he says.

One like this has never been caught that young. Also, Nugent says, astronomically speaking, it's really close.

"The supernova is only located 21 million light-years away," he says. "We have had only about a half a dozen Type 1a supernova in the past century that have been as close."

So it's a pretty special moment for the people standing in Yucca Valley. For Crescencio Garcenyella from Landers, Calif., seeing it makes him feel like an explorer himself.

"Like Christopher Columbus," he says. "Just gaze and wonder how gigantic this universe is, and we're part of this."

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AUDIE CORNISH, host: It's the kind of event amateur astronomers dream of. One of the brightest supernovas in the last century is now visible. As Daniel Hajek reports, Supernova 2011fe is bringing out the stargazers.

DANIEL HAJEK: Saturday night in the desert town of Yucca Valley, California, two hours east of Los Angeles, far away from the big city lights, the town's community center parking lot is buzzing with a group of excited backyard astronomers like Carolina Liechtenstein.

CAROLINA LIECHTENSTEIN: I spend hours every night with my dog and maybe some popcorn and just look at the stars. I haven't turned on my TV lately. I get goose bumps.

HAJEK: Liechtenstein's guides for tonight's stargazing are two professional astronomers: Paul McCudden and Dean Arvidson, who set up three highly sensitive cameras that look like giant telescopes. They're projecting the images onto a large screen.

PAUL MCCUDDEN: Tighten up the focus a little. There we go.

DEAN ARVIDSON: Very nice.

HAJEK: By day, they teach courses in physics and astronomy at Los Angeles City College. But tonight, Arvidson and McCudden take to the mic and play tour guides of deep space.

MCCUDDEN: This is probably, you know, a few billion stars right there, and then that one single star, you know, can be as bright as a few billion stars.

HAJEK: This supernova is just above the Big Dipper. It's a Type 1a, meaning it formed from a thermonuclear explosion of a white dwarf star.

MCCUDDEN: There we go. We're starting to get an image. The spiral arm of 101.

HAJEK: That's Messier 101, the Pinwheel Galaxy. And within that galaxy, McCudden points to a faint speck of light - the supernova. The crowd leans towards the screen.

MCCUDDEN: This is pretty rare. You don't see supernovas this bright very often.

Dr. PETER NUGENT: This is the fifth-brightest supernova in the last 110 years.

HAJEK: That's Dr. Peter Nugent from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. He was looking at that same galaxy this past August when he discovered the supernova, just hours after light from the explosion reached earth. One like this has never been caught that young. And, Nugent says, astronomically speaking, it's really close.

NUGENT: The supernova is only located 21 million light-years away. We have had only about a half a dozen Type 1a supernova in the past century that have been as close.

HAJEK: So, it's a pretty special moment for the people standing out here in Yucca Valley, like Crescencio Garcenyella from Landers, California. Seeing it makes him feel like an explorer himself.

CRESCENCIO GARCENYELLA: Like Christopher Columbus, you know, just gaze and wonder how gigantic this universe is, and we're part of this.

HAJEK: Supernova 2011fe will last for more than a decade, but it won't stay this bright. Within the next week, the light that took 21 million years to reach earth will fade out of view for amateur astronomers. For NPR News, I'm Daniel Hajek.

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