Supernova 2012aw: the pictures!

By Phil Plait | March 20, 2012 5:29 pm

Last night, I wrote about a possible new supernova in the galaxy M95, a nearby spiral. It has since been confirmed, and is called SN 2012aw. Given that M95 is about 37 or so million light years away — close on a galactic scale — that means this exploding star will be easy to see even with smaller telescopes. I asked folks if they could send me images, and send them they have!

Here’s one from Greek amateur astronomer Anthony Ayiomamitis, using a 30.5 cm (roughly 12") telescope — and it’s hot off the ‘scope; as I write this he took this image just a couple of hours ago:

How about that? The supernova is marked. Not only that, it’s sitting right on a spiral arm, and as soon as I saw that I knew it was a Type II: when a massive star explodes at the end of its life. Those kinds of stars are born in spiral arms and don’t live long enough to wander out of them — that can take many tens of millions of years, and these massive, hot stars live only a few million years at most. And sure enough, spectra taken have revealed the presence of hydrogen in the explosion, which only happens in these kinds of exploding stars*.

Another image was taken by George Carey which looks very much like Anthony’s (they both have the same sized telescopes, though very different in design). This makes me think we’ll be seeing a lot more images of this soon, including from some big, professional observatories.

I have to point out this sequence taken by Parijat Singh, which he made into an animation. The first half of the sequence was taken on March 15, and the second on March 16. Keep your eyes just above and to the right of the galaxy center… [You may need to refresh this page to see the embedded video.]

Pop! [The various streaks you see in some frames are, I believe, satellites passing through the field of view.]

Images like these are critical; they put an upper limit on how bright the supernova was just before it exploded, which helps scientists figure out the physical processes that go in in the very early hours of a star exploding. That’s hard to catch, so there aren’t many observations of very young supernovae. Clearly though, with more amateur astronomers with better equipment patrolling the skies all the time, we’ll be getting more shots like these.

The current brightness of the supernova is around 13.3, but I expect it’ll get brighter in the coming days. Not bright enough to see naked eye, and you’ll still probably need a 30cm telescope to see it without a digital camera, but that’s still pretty cool. Stay tuned!

Images credits: Anthony Ayiomamitis; George Carey; Parijat Singh.

* UPDATE: I got a note from my friend and supernova expert Alex Filippenko. He points out that just seeing a supernova in a spiral arm doesn’t guarantee that it was a massive star; the other major type of supernova (Type Ia) happens with very old stars, and these can by coincidence happen to be in a spiral arm when they go off. He’s right (of course). He also notes that Type Ib and Ic supernovae are from massive stars; and perhaps I shouldn’t have limited myself to this one being a Type II. The taxonomy of supernovae is a little confusing, and maybe someday that’ll be the topic of a post here!

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Pretty pictures
MORE ABOUT: M95, SN 2012aw

Comments (25)

  1. Sunil

    I still can’t believe star can pop up like that in just a few days :) — awesome video!

  2. What’s the “star” on the right edge near the middle that nearly disappears from 15th to 16th? Is that Mars? It seems too close and too dim, and there does seem to be a speck of something there even in the later frames.

  3. Todd

    Mars would be much brighter. Must be a slight difference in framing. Or, perhaps Darth Vader blew it up.

  4. kmw

    Just curious…how do they come up with the name? SN 2012aw Is “aw” for the person who found it?

    -Longtime fan, rare commenter.

  5. scibuff

    @kmw “aw” stands for the number in 2012, i.e. first 26 supernovae are 2012 A to 2012 Z, then you have 2012aa to 2012az and so on. You do the math to calculate what number is this one in 2012.

  6. scibuff

    Mars is currently about half degree from M96. Actually, the discovery image from Crni Vrch Observatory (106) contains diffraction spikes

  7. Mars is about a degree to the upper right of M95 – about 20 to 30 times the diameter of the galaxy away from it, so it is not in the frame at all – everything else is just stars. But Mars was still bright enough to light up the thin clouds present when I took my photo of the supernova last night.

  8. MKS

    hey, i took a look at that under closer magnification and found this

    keep on travellin, Carl :3

  9. Mike S

    Just wondering, why was a telescope trained on this galaxy prior to the observation of the Nova? Was the astronomer looking at something unrelated?

  10. JollyJoker

    How sensitive are current neutrino detectors? Any chance of an observation?

  11. Bubba

    My question is this, unrelated to the sn: when taking photos of objects so far away, with obviously large magnification, are some of these background stars appearing big because they’re bright, or are they actually being resolved as discs because magnification brings us so close to them? I’ve always wondered about this.

  12. CB

    @ L McNish:

    Nice photo, despite the clouds!

    Man, the core of M95 is bright. That gives me hope. Last year when I tried to find the Supernova in M101 I was probably looking right at the SN but coludn’t tell because the galaxy’s surface brightness is so low. Since my scope is at the edge of sufficient, the crappy skies here might make it impossible, but I can at least try…

  13. CB

    @ Bubba

    Naw, only a few stars (relatively nearby supergiants like Betelgeuse) have ever been resolved as discs, and then only by top-end ‘scopes like HST, and then still only a few pixels wide.

    It’s an effect of the atmosphere, the optics, and the CCD used to take the picture that makes them look like discs.

  14. SM

    Does this mean that we can expect the neutrinos from this SN to reach us in a few days (or months) assuming that neutrinos from SN travel at nearly the speed of light? How do neutrino detectors distinguish between these and other natural sources of neutrinos? Do neutrino observations of SNe tell us anything more that observations in electromagnetic spectrum doesn’t?

  15. Todd

    @Mike S: Parajit is one of the more dedicated & impressive amateur astronomers in the Phoenix area, espeically in the area of photometry (measuring light curves). This guy detects exoplanets with home equipment for fun. I believe he was taking an image of M95 mainly to produce a “pretty picture” and captured the supernova by sheer luck. It takes several nights to collect enough data to make a pretty picture, hence the before & after images. He wasn’t aware of the supernova until I posted Phil’s announcement about it to our astronomy group, the East Valley Astronomy Club. As I said to him: “Of all the galaxies in the universe, you sure picked the right one to image!”

  16. Eric

    Any chance we’ll get see any Hubble time towards this thing?

  17. Havie

    This explosion took place way before our species appeared on this planet.

  18. You need to change one phrase: “how bright the supernova was before it exploded.” This needs to be “how bright the progenitor star was before the supernova event” Just a matter of semantics but it makes all the difference. (A supernova is not actually an explosion, it is an implosion with a core bounce – demonstration can be made by dropping a basketball and a tennis ball just above it. The “core bounce” occurs by the transfer of momentum/energy from the basketball to the tennis ball, flinging it much higher than it would have been had it been dropped from the same height. Please make sure this is corrected.


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