Spectacular site for Supernova 2012A

By Phil Plait | January 25, 2012 7:00 am

The first supernova of the year was spotted a couple of weeks ago: Supernova 2012A, in the galaxy NGC 3239 in the constellation of Leo. Adam Block of the Mount Lemmon SkyCenter took a phenomenal image of it:

[Click to corecollapsenate.]

Funny, the supernova isn’t what you’d expect; it’s not that really bright star (which is probably a star in our own galaxy that happens to be superposed on the galaxy) but instead the fainter one indicated. Images taken years ago show no sign of the new star.

The galaxy is called NGC 3239 (or Arp 263), and is a weird galaxy technically classified as irregular. Its distance isn’t well known, but it’s something like 25 million light years away or so. I imagine we’ll get a better distance determination very soon, since that’s important in understanding how much energy a supernova puts out.

The shape of the galaxy is probably the result of the collision of two separate galaxies which are still in the process of merging. The odd shape is a consequence of that. The pinkish glow is from gas clouds actively forming stars, and the overall blue tinge is from massive, hot, young stars, again probably triggered by the galaxy collisions. In fact, SN 2012A is the type of supernova formed when a massive star explodes, and these are short-lived stars.

The supernova is bright enough to be spotted in amateur-astronomy sized telescopes, so it’s getting some attention, like here and here and here. Adam Block has access to a telescope nearly a meter across which is equipped with an excellent camera, so his image is spectacular. I love all the background galaxies as well; we’re looking well away from the obscuring dust and junk floating around in our own galaxy, as well as toward a part of the Universe littered with distant galaxies.

It used to be that only a few dozen supernovae were discovered in a year, so the first one of a new year may not have been found for some time. Supernova 1987A — which I studied for my PhD — was the first one in 1987 and it was seen in the third week of February! Now, with robotic telescopes sweeping the skies with exquisite sensitivity, it’s rare to go a whole week in the new year without discovering one. And this is a numbers game: the more supernovae we find, the better we can understand them.

Image credit: Adam Block/Mount Lemmon SkyCenter/University of Arizona, used with permission.


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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy

Comments (15)

Links to this Post

  1. Our Galaxy’s Next Supernova | My Blog | January 27, 2012
  1. Mapnut

    What are those three very dense bright clumps just below and to the right of the supernova? They look too dense and too big to be globular clusters, much too big to be stars, and too bright to be dwarf elliptical galaxies. They look even odder in the older image you linked.

  2. Chris

    @1 Mapnut
    If it’s the same thing you’re looking at, I think it could be massive star forming regions. When the galaxies collided, clouds of gas collided and started producing massive stars. Looks fascinating.

    As I was doing a quick google search on the galaxy I found this line which brought a smile to my face.
    NGC 3239, ARP 263, is a highly disturbed and irregular galaxy.
    Just anthropomorphising :-)

    http://cs.astronomy.com/asycs/media/p/466055.aspx

  3. Jeff

    it’s a shame 1987a wasn’t visible in USA, it would have been spectacular to view if it had been in say the big dipper. This one , may not be visible to naked eye?

  4. I’m guessing that if sn 2012a had planets with life, they found the supernova to be somewhat LESS than spectacular.

  5. Brian

    Champagne supernova!

  6. Rob

    This light started out about half way between dinosaurs and man.

  7. Bloob

    Both images have the spot you pointed to as well. I think it has tiny optical spikes too. Perhaps you means the dimmer spot to the bottom-left of that one? That one I can’t find on the noao photo.

  8. Great image, great write -up & superluminous news! Cheers! :-)

    @3. Jeff : ” .. This one , may not be visible to naked eye?”

    No, sadly SN2012A won’t be anywhere near bright enough to be visible with unaided human eyesight given its vast distance from us of 25 million light years or so. In fact the BA notes its only visible telescopically – don’t think you could spot it in binoculars even. Unsure exactly what its apparent magnitude is though.

    @4. Lugosi :

    I’m guessing that if sn 2012a had planets with life, they found the supernova to be somewhat LESS than spectacular.

    Its highly unlikely that any habitable planets existed around the star that went supernovae given that it was a high mass short-lived star. That star would evolved very quickly not giving life time to develop and may not even have had planets at all if its its strong stellar winds destroyed any protoplanetary disk before they could’ve formed. Of course, Supernova 2012A would potentially spell big trouble for any nearby neighbouring planetary systems that could have had life.

    @5. Brian : “Champagne supernova!”

    Imagine, if they found huge quantities of alcohol in the spectrum! ;-)

    (Click on my name for the song.)

  9. Chris

    The barred spiral in the bottom left corner of the cropped photo has caught my eye – one of the most beautiful I’ve seen. Don’t suppose anyone has any idea what it might be and if there are any better photos of it?

  10. René

    Did anyone spot the group of 3 galaxies in the top left corner? Seem to be circling each other (same yellowish colour).. Maybe they’ll merge one day? (if they are really that close together)..

    Amazing picture no matter what!!

  11. Rusty

    Any one know who found #1 of the year? was it some big search team or just some guy in his or her back yard?

  12. Ben H.

    Phil,
    Your post implies that we regularly find a supernova every week – otherwise you wouldn’t say its rare to go the first week of the year without finding one. Is this really true? There are 50 or so supernova every year? I feel like I would be hearing about more of them if this was the case.

  13. Andy

    Ben,
    Over 800 supernovae discovered last year and over 100 already this year. Most are very far and faint.
    see more here:
    http://www.rochesterastronomy.com/snimages

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