Supernovae and cheeseburgers

Posted on Feb 06 2014

Today we veer 10 time zones west of Saipan. A science story came out of London on Jan. 21, when some astronomy students and their mentor discovered, quite by chance, a supernova within a galaxy called M82.

The University College London students, Ben Cooke, Tom Wright, Matthew Wilde and Guy Pollack, assisted by Dr. Steve Fossey, were observing M82. It appeared to have a little something extra in it. And, in fact, it did have a little something extra in it. They leapt into action, and the astronomy world hasn’t slept since.

The supernova is an exploding star. It’s freaky physics, a giant cosmic nuclear blast.

Most folks will go their entire lives without seeing a supernova. They only occur a few times over a human lifespan in a galaxy the size of ours, and ours is pretty big.

They also occur, of course, in other galaxies, as in this case. But intergalactic distances are vast, so it’s rare for a supernova to occur close enough to Earth for normal guys like me to clearly see with our humble equipment, which is one reason this is such a big story.

Before we continue, though, we have to note a quirk of English grammar. I’ll mention that the plural of supernova is “supernovae.” I wish we could just say “supernovas.” That seems more sensible to me, but grammar ain’t my strong suit.

Anyway, scientists are interested in supernovae for various technical reasons, but the rest of us can simply enjoy the “gee whiz” factor of these giant explosions.

The supernova at issue right now, dubbed SN 2014J, was so bright that it was clearly visible even in small telescopes over the 11.5 million light-year distance its light traveled to reach Earth.

In other words, to appreciate the size of this monster explosion, we have to appreciate the distance to it. After all, if you could see a bonfire at the opposite side of the Pacific Ocean, you would conclude that it was a mighty powerful bonfire.

Someone asked if the distance to M82 has been measured by radar. It’s a good question.

The answer is that if we could bounce a radar signal off of M82, it’s so far away that we would have to wait over 23 million years for the signal to travel out and back. I was sort of hoping to be retired by then.

However, if I don’t hit the lotto soon I’ll have to re-cast my retirement plans. Maybe I’ll volunteer for radar duty, since it looks juicy for racking up a lot of overtime, and after a few million years I’m bound to get some solid seniority and hopefully a halfway decent dental plan.

So despite M82’s status as a “nearby” galaxy, that “nearby” is a comparative term on the cosmic scale. On any humanly conceivable scale, M82 is not nearby at all, and any single point of light that can be seen over this distance is a mighty powerful bonfire.

It’s better to be lucky than good, and when news of SN 2014J hit the world, I had already planned to attend an astronomy get-together.

At the get-together dozens of amateur astronomers, gear in tow, gathered in a dark stretch of remote desert; basically a camping trip for space cadets. We didn’t even wait for the moon to set before we trained our scopes on M82, whereupon SN 2014J became immediately visible.

It looked like a normal star, just a point of light, but was identifiable by reference to annotated photos (as in: “Dude, this arrow points to the supernova.”)

Photos of astronomical bodies are far more dazzling than what an eyeball sees in a telescope. Cameras, unlike eyeballs, can accumulate light, and can therefore build up a lot of detail. Many astronomical photos have exposure times measured in hours.

I’ve been told that SN 2014J has passed its peak brightness, so maybe the story is winding down now. The scientists will pore over the data they hoarded, and I’ll resume my usual focus on eating cheeseburgers. Hey, everybody’s good at something.

As for Saipan, if you feel like standing on Suicide Cliff and staring off into blank space, pondering the vastness of the great beyond, then I’ll note that M82 is in Saipan’s northern sky, hanging low. I don’t recall ever seeing it in binoculars, so, for me at least, it’s purely telescope territory.

What I like best about SN 2014J is how it was discovered. London’s skies are often cloudy, as they were on the night in question, and the discoverers picked M82 to observe because it happened to be in a clear patch of sky.

Right place. Right time. Fast thinking. A great story!

[I]Visit Ed Stephens Jr. at [URL=””][/URL]. His column runs every Friday.[/I]

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