Supernova update: it's peaking now!

By Phil Plait | September 7, 2011 11:50 am

A couple of weeks ago, astronomers spotted a star exploding in the nearby face-on spiral M101. They quickly determined it was a Type Ia, the kind used to calibrate the cosmic distance scale, and therefore a star of exceeding importance: we don’t see them close by (well, if 20+ million light years is "close", which it is to astronomers) very often. This one promised to get bright enough to study extremely well, which will help us understand these "standard candles" better.

Astronomers at Oxford University got a great shot of the galaxy and exploding star this week using a telescope located in California:

[Click to galactenate.]

The supernova is labeled. It was found by the Palomar Transient Factory, a group of folks looking for nearby supernovae, and was given the temporary name PTF 11kly; the official designation is SN 2011fe, the 136th supernova seen so far in 2011 (they’re named alphabetically for a given year, so the first 26 are 2011a – z, the second 26 are 2011ba – bz, etc.). This image was taken using a 0.8 meter telescope at the Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope Network; that’s a relatively small ‘scope, which tells you this a pretty bright object!

In fact, it appears to be reaching its peak brightness right now, and should be visible in binoculars. If you have a good view of Ursa Major, currently in the northwest at sunset, finding it shouldn’t be too difficult. Any decent star chart will show it (here’s one on wikipedia, for example). It’s raining here in Boulder (figures) but I’m hoping to get a chance to see it with my binoculars soon. Supernovae usually brighten for a couple of weeks and then fade more slowly, so if you can’t see it tonight or tomorrow it’s not critical, but of course the sooner you look the better.

Image credit: BJ Fulton/LCOGT. Tip o’ the accreting white dwarf to Dan Vergano (you should follow him on Twitter for lots of sciencey updates).

Related posts:

M101 supernova update
AstroAlert: Type Ia supernova in M101!
Dwarf merging makes for an explosive combo
Hubble delivers again: M101

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Pretty pictures

Comments (51)

  1. Bramblyspam

    Wouldn’t 2011fe then be the 135th supernova of the year? 26*5 = 130, + a, b, c, d, e.

  2. A single star outshining its galaxy is a little tough on its neighbors. It is a lot tougher on the planetary system inside the decay fireball. If there is a gravitational wave detector nearby, somebody opened a lot of champagne bottles 20+ million years ago. This makes for a nasty PERT chart on a grant funding application.

  3. ScorpyX

    Now there’s something to look for when I’m attempting Longs this weekend.

  4. AliCali

    Until around 1925, astronomers didn’t know if these “Sprial Nebulae” were an entire system of stars outside the Milky Way or just clouds that are part of the Milky Way. Some would see a nova like the one now in M101 and state that if these Spiral Nublae are entire systems outside of the Milky Way, then the flaring of that star would be brighter than anything we could imagine. It’s impossible for a star to get that bright!

    Astronomy always seems to be bigger and more powerful than anything we imagine.

  5. Simon Green

    Speaking of Ia supernovae and the constellation of Vulpecula, here’s an interesting article from the Arxiv:

    Apparently new analysis seems to confirm that the universe is accelerating anisotropically, and the largest acceleration is in the direction of Vulpecula.

  6. Chris P K

    It only just occurred to me that this time last year I was doing my astronomy observation project on this galaxy (or was it 6 months ago? whatever). Would have been very cool to get an image of that supernova on our scope (also a 0.8 m). Of course, seeing as we were rained/winded out each of our observing nights, any images would have been cool in my mind…

  7. Cameron

    Does it mean I’m fat cause I read 2011fe as “souffle”

  8. Jon Hanford

    “Until around 1925, astronomers didn’t know if these “Sprial Nebulae” were an entire system of stars outside the Milky Way or just clouds that are part of the Milky Way. Some would see a nova like the one now in M101 and state that if these Spiral Nublae are entire systems outside of the Milky Way, then the flaring of that star would be brighter than anything we could imagine.”

    Good point. In 1885, a 6th magnitude star was seen to appear very close to the nucleus of the Andromeda Galaxy. S Andromedae (aka SN 1885A) thus became what would eventually be recognized as the first supernova seen outside of the Milky Way galaxy:

    Not until 1989 was the remnant for this supernova found, using the 4 meter telescope at Kitt Peak:…341L..55F&data_type=PDF_HIGH&whole_paper=YES&type=PRINTER&filetype=.pdf

    [A paper a year earlier, by Chevalier & Plait (yeah, that Philip Plait guy), discussed some of the historical observations of SN 1885A and offered strategies for locating it:…331L.109C&data_type=PDF_HIGH&whole_paper=YES&type=PRINTER&filetype=.pdf ]

  9. Robin Byron

    ‘Once more unto the breach’ will I face hordes of fully combat ready, repellent loving, stealth mosquitoes here in SC. My last attempted viewing resulted in numerous casualties on both sides. Is there an Amateur Astronomer’s Medal of Tenacity?

  10. Jess Tauber

    Time to put your phot on and get outdoors then.

  11. Relativity

    Realizing that this “close-by” supernova exploded 20+ million years ago and we are just now witnessing it is just freakkin mind-boggling!!! Add to add, this supernova is outshining its home galaxy, which happens to be roughly 10x bigger than our Milky Way! Pure Awesomeness!

  12. CharonPDX

    So I’m curious. If this were, say, one galactic arm away (say, at 180 degrees, straight out in the middle of the Perseus arm, so about 7500 ly away,) what would be the impact on the Earth? Would it be disastrous (either “shock wave blows away the Earth’s atmosphere completely” or even just “enough cosmic rays to cause a cancer increase of 10%,”) would it be “OMG! SUN-BRIGHTNESS LIGHT IN THE SKY AT NIGHT!”, or would it be “Oh, look, something rivaling Venus in brightness”?

  13. Cowtreat

    I saw the supernova through my 12″ telescope 3 or 4 days after it was discovered and it was the most exciting moment I’ve had with at telescope and without a woman. It was right at the limit of my telescope and I could only see it at 150x. This was with next to no light pollution as I live in a national park.
    I saw it Saturday too under the best seeing I have ever had. It seemed to outshine the rest of the galaxy then.

    It’s pretty amazing to think about what life may be destroyed by this and what may be created.

  14. b. whitney

    There aren’t “shockwaves” in space. Pressure waves occur when rapidly expanding gasses press on the surronding atmosphere.

  15. Jess Tauber

    For most younger persons (at least in OUR culture) if it isn’t a cartoon or a video game, you’d get yawns, though I suppose being able to play your game outdoors at night by the light of a supernova might be laugh-worthy.

  16. Brian

    Funny you should ask that, CharonPDX — I think somebody wrote a book that explained that in much detail. The paperback version had a bright red and yellow cover with a cartoon of a giant meteor coming down … hmm — what was it called…?

    Anyway, the upshot is that a supernova would need to be no more than ~30 light years away to do noticeable damage to earth.

  17. One can get images in small scopes with long exposures.

    Astrophotography is expensive, and 2/3 or 3/4 of the cost is the mount. The smaller the scope, the smaller, and therefore cheaper, the mount. From downtown Detroit, the light pollution is awful, but narrow band filters, like oxygen 3, sulpher 2 and hydrogen alpha don’t really care. So the strategy for getting awesome pictures of nebula involves two 80 mm scopes, one is a guide scope, and the other is a narrowband imager. The filters toss most of the light, and 80 mm isn’t very big, so you end up with hours of each channel exposure. Since the nebula doesn’t move over the course of days, you just do it. I’ve seen results that have pin point stars and gorgeous detail. Yes, it’s still $9,000 of equipment.

  18. Kevin

    Does anyone have a link to that image without the label? A quick search in the Las Cumbres Observatory’s database didn’t turn anything up…

  19. Mike from Atlanta

    So tomorrow or the next day, we should finally get rid of the rest of TS Lee remnants from Atlanta and I’d like to go out and look at it with my binoculars or 8″ reflector, but I’m not sure I’ll know what I’m looking at.

    I probably can’t pick M101 out of our light polluted skies, but may pick out the SN, but it will look like one of the many other stars that show up in my scope that I don’t have names for.

    How will I know what I’m looking at? What magnitude is it peaking at so I can at least compare it to other stars on the star charts and look for one that’s not on the chart?

  20. lepton

    It is 20Mly away, if moved to 7.5kly, it will be sqr(20M/7.5k) brighter, roughly 17.3 mag.

    It is roughly peaking at +10, so, placed in Perseus arm, it will be mag -7.3.

    Maximum Venus, -4.89.

    Interestingly, SN 1006 peaked at an estimated -7.5 and it’s 7.2kly away.

  21. Jon Hanford

    “How will I know what I’m looking at? What magnitude is it peaking at so I can at least compare it to other stars on the star charts and look for one that’s not on the chart?”

    Sky & Telescope is reporting a (near peak) visual magnitude of 10.2 as of Sept. 5:

    There’s also links to finder charts at that link like this one (with a magnitude sequence for estimating brightness) by Joe Brimacombe:

    [And you are correct, the nova will outshine the galaxy (and be more easily seen) when viewed through small instruments and light-polluted skies.]

  22. Cowtreat

    I used a picture similar to the one above to locate the supernova.

  23. @Stephan #18 – You left out what at least for me would be the most expensive and important part of the system. Buying a house in a place that actually has clear skies for long enough to do those exposures. Here in western Washington that $9000 system, or a $90,000 system would only get us pictures of clouds. Nice pictures of clouds to be sure.

    In eastern Washington I’ve played around with photography and can get pictures with a much cheaper system. I mostly just look through the eye piece and enjoy the view. I love the pictures people take, but it almost seems like work doing that…

    Big fan of the 80mm scope though. With dark skies I get great views with a fairly inexpensive 80mm scope and it’s much easier for the kids to look through than the newt. Lighter and easier to set up too.

  24. Meskine

    Phil, while eyeballing a supernova from my driveway registers pretty high on the Way Cool meter, I would gladly trade a couple of weeks of our clear, dry skies in fiery northeast Texas for a couple of weeks of your rainy Boulder nights.

  25. Messier Tidy Upper

    Good news and image. :-)

    Shame for me it’s circumpolar to the Northern hemisphere. Oh well, I’ll just have to settle for the online pics and news of it.

    I hope someone has put tgether a sequence of all the images of it brightening and combined them into a movie!

    @13. CharonPDX :

    So I’m curious. If this were, say, one galactic arm away (say, at 180 degrees, straight out in the middle of the Perseus arm, so about 7500 ly away,) what would be the impact on the Earth?

    Funny you should mention the figure of seven thousand, five hundred lights away – that’s just the distance to Eta Carinae. Eta Carinae being one of (if not *The*) most supermassive, super-luminous hypergiant stars in our Milky Way galaxy and oen that featured in a chapter in a great book about Death from the Skies – which (#17.) Brian has already referred to. Its was written by a Dr .. doctor .. P-something .. if I recall right! The name might’ve ended in a ‘t’ too. Sounds really familiar.. it’s just on the tip of my tongue. 😉

    Would it be disastrous (either “shock wave blows away the Earth’s atmosphere completely” or even just “enough cosmic rays to cause a cancer increase of 10%,”) would it be “OMG! SUN-BRIGHTNESS LIGHT IN THE SKY AT NIGHT!”, or would it be “Oh, look, something rivaling Venus in brightness”?

    Depends on the star going supernova to some extent or so I gather. Chapter 3 in the book mentioned above deals with the supernovae threat and chapter 4 deals with a scenario where another worse type of supernova called a Gamma ray burst goes off – coincidentally from Eta Carinae -and hits us in just the right (or rather wrong) way!

    For reference, the supernova that went off in 1054 A.D. and created Messier 1 – better known as the Crab nebula – was 6,500 light years away. Eveen closer at a mere 800 light years distant was the supernovae that created the Vela supernovae remnant about 11,000 years ago and the supernova that formed the Geminga pulsar was closest still estimated as being somewhere between 30 and 200 light years away in space and 340,000 years ago in time. The Geminga supernova probably formed the Local Bubble galactic region our Sun is currently travelling through too.

    Source : pages 30-37, “The Star that blew a Hole in Space” by Richard G. Teske in ‘Astronomy’ magazine , December 1993.

  26. Messier Tidy Upper

    See :


    for the Vela and Geminga supernova remnants – one nebulous, one ex-star.

    See :

    for more about Eta Carinae. :-)

  27. Plus see also :

    for the impact of one very distant but still very powerful Gamma Ray Burst (GRB) back in 2008.

    Then there’s this GRB :

    which surpassed even that in super-luminousity! 😮

    Also :

    for one distant Wolf Rayet supernova candidate that could pose a (slight) threat even from across the immense gulfs of space – spanning 8000 kly in this case.

    Finally, click on my name for a link that discusses what might be the most dangerous supernova candidate star of our neighbourhood – HR 8210 or IK Pegasi – a Delta Scuti variable, white dwarf pair.

  28. Charlie Foxtrot

    I’ve got my 8″ dobsonian reflector on order – I’d love to try to eyeball this supernova next week!

    …just gotta move this damn Southern Hemisphere around a bit more, though.

    Hand me that crowbar…

  29. @ ^ Charlie Foxtrot : .. Archimedes? 😉

    (Click on my name for ref.)

  30. Charlie Foxtrot

    Yeah – I’m screwed…


  31. Fairly certain I could just barely spot it with 10×50 binocs. Wonderfully clear skies in socal, even though it’s bloody hot out. Tomorrow I’ll haul out Betty, the old faithful 8″ Celestron, and see what she makes of it.

  32. BTW, here’s a pretty good finder chart for viewing with binocs. Start at the bottom of the page, then click the link for the close-up.

  33. Hi Phil

    Just a quick correction – the LCOGT telescope in question will be one of their robotic facilities, in either Chile or Australia, not in California.

  34. Joseph G

    One thing I’ve been wondering – why does it take so long to for a supernova to reach peak brightness? A core collapse supernova, for example, goes from “everything is fine” to “OMGWTFBBQ” quite quickly – the outer layers of the star fall in on the core at a fair fraction of the speed of light*. Even for so large an object, I’d think that it’d only take a matter of seconds for the whole thing to go boom. Apparently much of the energy transport out of the core is in the form of neutrinos, which I’d think would only expedite the process of getting all that “blam” turned into (visible) ultra-hot gas.
    So what am I missing here? Does the supernova remnant emit more light as it expands then the original detonation itself?

    *As Death From the Skies describes quite spectacularly

  35. Messier Tidy Upper

    @ ^ Joseph G : I could well be mistaken, this is off the top of my head but I think there’s a trio of possible reasons for that :

    1) Radioactive element decay of elements created in the Supernovae (SN) takes a little while to kick in. The glowing decay of some of the heavier isotopes contributes significantly to the SN’s luminosity or so I gather.

    2) The size of the explosion swells and covers more area – just as a yellow supergiant star has the same temperature as our Sun but is much brighter because its surface area is so much greater.

    3) The initial raditaion from the core is contained inside an outer shell of sorts which breaks apart allowing more of the radiation to escape with elapsed time.

    Anyone care to elaborate further on this, please?

  36. Chas, PE SE

    Tried to spot it with my homemade 8″/f5 @ 25X from NW suburbs of Chicago last nite, 0200 GMT. Couldn’t spot it–aiming was a problem. May have swept right over it and not recognized it. Used Wiki star chart. Clouds called for next few nights. Ah, well.

  37. Daniel J. Andrews

    I tried last night with binos but didn’t see it as the moon was fairly bright and the supernova was low on the horizon. I could have looked for it in the wee hours, but I was too cozy in my sleeping bag to drag myself out into the cold night.

  38. JoseAbel

    Hey Phil,

    Can you recommend a good entry level telescope? I’m really interested in these topics, specially in an oportunity like this.

  39. Joseph G

    @37 MTU: Thanks. Re number 3, I was wondering if it was something like that. I believe that’s what causes the characteristic “double flash” of nuclear weapons.

    As for number 1, wow. That’s a lot of fission goin’ on :) I wonder if these are mostly short-lived isotopes, or if there’s just so much stuff there that even less active isotopes are enough to release that much energy? It’s so damn hard to wrap your mind around supernovas! Like neutrinos causing all that heating – you wouldn’t think it possible, but with such an inconceivably vast number of neutrinos and such an enormously dense material as that of a collapsing star… Immovable object, meet unstoppable force :)

  40. Joseph G

    @40 Jose Abel: How much are you looking to spend? I’m an utter n00b myself, but I have been doing a little research on telescopes. Celestron and Meade both have some good ones in the 6-10 inch, 300 – 500 US dollar range. Of course, you can probably do just fine with a basic 4 inch Newtonian, without a fancy mount, for less. It seems like the scopes with the built-in “Go to” feature start in the 350 dollar range. I gather it also depends on what you’re planning on doing – solo gazing vs with groups, eye observing vs photography, etc.

    Heh, I thought this was a good ‘scope, but the link is broken. Still, one of the best 404 pages I’ve seen in awhile:

  41. Rodrigo

    Why does it shine for weeks? Is it exploding all that time?

  42. cowtreat

    I went out tonight and couldn’t see it with my 12″ dob. I saw it 3-4 days after it was discovered and it was a lot dimmer than it is now but now the moon is too bright. I’m sure I saw it tonight but I’m not sure what blob it was as I couldn’t see the galaxy.

    I was wondering about all these news reports that said people could see it with a good set of binoculars. Did they know about the moon?

  43. @Rodrigo (43)
    Considering the typical life span of stars, a few weeks is an explosion. Boom!

  44. ChazInMT

    Tonight I had a 8″ Schmidt with go to capability, or I never would have been able to discrern 101. 2011fe was the only thing you could see against the very faintest hint of a galaxy behind, moonwash was very bright even in our dark sky location at 6,000 feet. Binoculars my butt. Very cool though to see.

  45. MattTheTubaGuy

    This is one of the few reasons it sucks living in NZ: I can’t see anything above 45 degrees north.
    according to my smart phone, Ursa Major is literally right underneath me!

  46. Messier Tidy Upper

    @ MattTheTubaGuy : So what’s your latitude then?

    I’m at 35 degrees South.

  47. @ mttthetubeguy:

    Uh, yeah, but you LIVE IN NEW ZEALAND.


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