Science & Technology



An amateur astronomer testing a new camera happens to catch a supernova as it's being born

Amina Khan, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Science & Technology News

Peering at a distant galaxy, an amateur astronomer in Argentina managed to capture a star in the act of going supernova. The chances of this discovery, scientists say, are 1-in-a-million at best.

This lucky find, described in the journal Nature, offers the first images of the sudden brightening caused by a shock in the star's core -- a process that had been theorized but never observed.

"This is the first confirmation of the existence of this phase, which is really in agreement with the models," said lead author Melina Bersten, an astrophysicist at the Instituto de Astrofisica de La Plata in Argentina.

The supernova, SN 2016gkg, could shed fresh light on the end stages of a star's life.

SN 2016gkg was spotted in September 2016 by study coauthor Victor Buso, an amateur astronomer based out of Rosario, Argentina. Buso had been testing a new camera on his 16-inch telescope by aiming it at spiral galaxy NGC 613, which lies roughly 80 million light-years away in the constellation Sculptor.

After taking a series of short-exposure photographs, Buso took a look at his work -- and noticed, at the end of one of the galaxy's spiral arms, a bright point in the later images that hadn't been there in the earlier ones.

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It takes experience to be able to notice such a tiny but significant change, said Gaston Folatelli, an astronomer at the Instituto de Astrofisica de La Plata and one of the study's authors.

"Victor was really very lucky -- cannot deny that -- but also he had enough expertise to be able to see the object and to realize that this was possible," said Folatelli, who helped lead the work with Bersten.

Buso put the word out. Within hours, telescopes around the world had been trained on the bright object. Astronomers continued to study it for two months, breaking up the light into different wavelengths to better understand the nature of the explosion -- and the dying star that fueled it.

Supernovas are the violent, explosive deaths of massive stars. They release energy across the electromagnetic spectrum from X-rays to visible light and radio waves, and are so powerful that they produce heavy elements that the nuclear fusion in their hearts could never forge in life.


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