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A Supernova in M82

January 22nd, 2014


I was startled today to learn that a Type Ia supernova has been spotted in M82 — a very nearby, very bright galaxy that even I can find with a backyard telescope. In the image just below, M82 is the galaxy at the lower right.

And here’s a picture of M82 taken yesterday:


Image Source.

The M82 supernova is destined to provide major-league scientific interest. Type Ia supernovae serve as cosmic distance indicators, and yet there are still a number of fundamental unanswered questions about them, including the nature of the precursor white dwarf binary.

Amazingly, it appears that the supernova went unremarked for nearly a week as it increased in brightness by more than a factor of a hundred. Reports indicate that the first team to notice the supernova consisted of Steve Fossey and a group of undergraduate students who were doing a class-related exercise at the University of London Observatory (in the city of London). From the UCL press release (which makes great reading):

Students and staff at UCL’s teaching observatory, the University of London Observatory, have spotted one of the closest supernova to Earth in recent decades. At 19:20 GMT on 21 January, a team of students – Ben Cooke, Tony Brown, Matthew Wilde and Guy Pollack – assisted by Dr Steve Fossey, spotted the exploding star in nearby galaxy Messier 82 (the Cigar Galaxy).

The discovery was a fluke – a 10 minute telescope workshop for undergraduate students that led to a global scramble to acquire confirming images and spectra of a supernova in one of the most unusual and interesting of our near–neighbour galaxies.

Oklo readers will remember that Steve Fossey (along with Ingo Waldmann and David Kipping ) was a co-discoverer of the transits of HD 80606b, work which was also carried out with small telescopes within the London City limits. In February 2009, Steve and I had many e-mails back and forth as he agonized over whether the HD 80606b transit detection had been made with enough confidence to warrant sticking one’s neck out. I always felt a little bad that I advised, what is in retrospect inordinate, caution, having personally experienced several previous bouts of transit fever. As it happened, Fossey, Waldmann and Kipping were barely edged out of making the first announcement by Garcia-Melendo and McCullough and by the French-Swiss team led by Claire Moutou.

So I was thrilled to see that Steve and his students have pulled this one off. I wrote him a quick note of congratulations, to which he replied:

The frantic days of homing in on dear old ‘606 feels like an easy ride, compared to the last 24 hours!

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