Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Supernova in M95

The Deep Sky Videos project has a strong focus on the so-called Messier Catalogue.

Throughout 2012 we're gradually making videos on all 110 of these distant objects in space.

Although fascinating, to human eyes this collection of galaxies, stars and nebula seem almost frozen in time (an illusion created by us living relatively short lives)

It seems we can simply make videos about them at our leisure - nothing much changes year-on-year, other than our scientific knowledge of them.

So this week has been exciting... Something changed.

A few days ago a bright spot appeared in the galaxy M95, billions of light-years away.

It was a suspected supernova - a violent and spectacular star explosion.

This meant a red alert for me (and the team of astronomers who make the videos possible).

After a flurry of phone calls and emails, I hurriedly filmed interviews with Mike Merrifield and Meghan Gray at the University of Nottingham.

I also consulted with Paul Crowther at the University of Sheffield, who first alerted me to supernova via Twitter.

I then rushed home and started editing.

But I also contacted astrophotographer Nik Szymanek (right), a regular contributor to Deep Sky Videos.

He was working at his backyard observatory and said he would be turning his telescope to M95.

Coincidentally, M95 currently appears very close Mars.

Of course Mars is far, far closer to Earth  (it is after all in our own Solar System whereas M95 is a whole other galaxy).

But this accidental and temporary "line of sight" issue was a nightmare for Nik.

Nik said he would have abandoned the image under normal circumstances, but persevered for my sake and cobbled together some quick exposures.

In this first image, the supernova is highlighted at the galaxy's outer edge. Light from Mars can be seen streaming in from the left.

This second image is a mosaic, showing Mars nearby (the "apparent" distance between M95 and Mars, as you look from Earth, is about the width of the Moon!)

Mars is obviously a small planet. A supernova is one of the brightest objects imaginable... Yet the relative distances from Earth mean that Mars appears millions of times brighter.

Mars can easily be seen with the naked eye whereas you need magnification to see the supernova.

When we made our video, the supernova was still "unconfirmed". Perhaps it was a less bright object closer to Earth?

However the light spectrum has now been checked and it is indeed a Type IIP supernova!

It even has a name: SN2012aw

It should be visible (with telescopes) for another 2 or 3 months.

And because M95 is close (in galaxy terms) and well imaged, perhaps astronomers will be able to do some detective work and figure out which star blew up!?

Images courtesy of Nik Szymanek. Top image of M95 courtesy of Isaac Newton Group of Telescopes.