Chris McKitterick (mckitterick) wrote,
Chris McKitterick

Astro-Porn of the Day: Supernova in the Whirlpool Galaxy!

For the second time in six years, a star has exploded in the Whirlpool Galaxy. Don't worry about it baking off our atmosphere or frying our satellites, because it's about 23 million light-years from the Milky Way Galaxy where we live. More good news: anyone with a medium- to large telescope under dark skies can find it, and the new supernova should remain visible for the next few weeks. Check out the boom in this animated gif:

Click the image to see the Astro Bob article on the supernova.

French observer Stéphane Lamotte Bailey created this animated image of the Whirlpool Galaxy's new supernova using images he took with an 8-inch telescope on May 30 (before) and June 2 (BOOM). This is a type II supernova, which we get when a massive star rapidly collapses, leading to the most violent explosion one sees in a galaxy. By "massive," I mean a star at least 9–50 times the mass of the Sun (no worries for our star). Type II supernovae mainly go boom in the spiral arms of galaxies.

The first hint of this supernova appeared on May 31st, when French amateur Anne Riou noticed a previously unobserved 14th-magnitude star in her CCD images of the galaxy. She recorded it again the following evening. By then the robotic Palomar Transient Factory and the Galaxy Zoo's supernova hunters had also detected it, and French observer Stéphane Lamotte Bailey imaged it. It's too early to tell if the supernova is brightening or fading.

What's a supernova look like up close? Check out this photo of SN 2006gy by NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory and ground-based optical telescopes. "This was a truly monstrous explosion, 100 times more energetic than a typical supernova," said Nathan Smith of the University of California at Berkeley, who led a team of astronomers from California and Texas. "That means the star that exploded might have been as massive as a star can get, about 150 times that of our sun. We've never seen that before."

Click the image to see the NASA page about this largest-ever observed supernova.

Supernovae provide the building-blocks for everything we enjoy in our daily lives, from the minerals in the Earth's crust to the materials needed to build life. They are the generators of the universe, turning primal stuff like hydrogen and helium into everything else. Supernovae are the true Philosopher's Stone, magic and power and light, capable also of destroying everything fragile within many light-years of the explosion.

How about a pretty, full-color shot courtesy of NASA's Hubble Space Telescope?

Click the image to see the NASA article on this Whirlpool Galaxy photo.

You might have noticed in the image above that the Whirlpool Galaxy (aka Messier 51a, M51a, or NGC 5194) is a spiral galaxy colliding with a smaller partner-galaxy, NGC 5195. This famous interacting pair are easily observed by amateur astronomers, and you can even spot the two galaxies with binoculars under dark skies.

Charles Messier (creator of the Messier Catalog of 110 of the best astro-objects in the sky) discovered the Whirlpool Galaxy in 1774 (hence the "M51" designation). Check out this fantastic visual catalog of the Messier objects:

Click the image to see the Wiki Messier Catalog article.

Its companion galaxy, NGC 5195, was discovered in 1781 by Pierre Méchain. Lord Rosse was the first to discover the spiral nature of the Whirpool using a 72-inch reflecting telescope he constructed at Birr Castle in Ireland. Sometimes M51 is used to refer to the pair of galaxies, in which case the individual galaxies may be referred to as M51A (NGC 5194) and M51B (NGC 5195).

Where do you find the Whirlpool Galaxy? Just a little under the tip of the Big Dipper's handle. Check out this handy map:

Click the image to see the Astro Bob article.

A spectograph taken with the Keck telescope on June 2 reveals that, after allowing for the Whirpool Galaxy's motion away from us at 600 kps, part of the blast is racing Earthward at high speed. "The shock wave has material moving at a variety of different speeds typically faster farther out," explains team member Bradley Cenko. "The hydrogen that we see moving toward us at 17,600 kps is probably a pretty good proxy for the fastest material in the outflow." You don't say, sir. Sometimes I think scientists become inured to just how FREAKING AMAZING is the stuff they're talking about. We're talking a plume of boom that can wipe worlds clean of the virus that the Matrix Agents also call, "life."

The supernova that exploded in another of the Whirlpool Galaxy's arms six years ago was also a Type II supernova. A third, somewhat-brighter detonation occurred in 1994: three supernovae in 17 years!

Tags: astronomy

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