Three days ago, a white dwarf exploded in the nearby M82 galaxy (aka Messier 82, Starburst Galaxy, or the Cigar Galaxy), the closest galaxy to our own. The explosion created the closest, and brightest, supernova seen by man in over a quarter of a century. In fact, the explosion is so bright, backyard astronomers are able to view it with small telescopes. Astronomers announced today that the supernova is continuing to grow brighter. Only three days in, the exploding star has become the brightest object in all of the M82 galaxy.
Located just 11.4-million light years away, the event, named SN 2014J, actually occurred 12 million years ago but the light is just now reaching our planet. M82 is roughly five times more luminous that our own Milky Way galaxy so the brightness of the exploding star is indeed astounding. Astronomers, who believe the supernova is still two weeks away from achieving its peak brightness, are calling the event the “Holy Grail” for scientists as it could help them unlock secrets about dark matter and how galaxies form.
“At 7.20PM last night Dr. Steve Fossey, who was leading the workshop, spotted the exploding star in M82. ‘The weather was closing in, with increasing cloud,’ Fossey said, ‘So instead of the planned practical astronomy class, I gave the students an introductory demonstration of how to use the CCD camera on one of the observatory’s automated 0.35–meter telescopes.’ The students chose M82, a bright and photogenic galaxy as their target, as it was in one of the shrinking patches of clear sky. While adjusting the telescope’s position, Fossey noticed a ‘star’ overlaid on the galaxy which he did not recognize from previous observations. The group inspected online archive images of the galaxy, and it became apparent that there was indeed a new star-like object in M82.”
Supernovas such as this sometimes they start out as a white dwarf, pulling in material from around them until they reach a critical mass and explode. Other times they are the result of two such stars (binaries) colliding. Scientists believe this particular explosion, one of the most catastrophic events in the universe, has undoubtedly unleashed a torrent of neutrinos, some of which could reach Earth.
M82 is located in the constellation Ursa Major, between the Big and Little Dipper. Astronomers say this new supernova is currently at magnitude +11 to +12, so it’s not yet visible with the naked eye. You’ll need a 4-inch telescope or good binoculars to be able to see it.