Meet Mr. Supernova


Supernovas in distant galaxies photographed by William Wiethoff

Were you able to split the double star in the Dipper’s Handle last night? If it proved tricky, try looking a little off to the side of the star rather than directly at it. This technique is called averted vision and exploits a more sensitive region within your eye.

Today I’d like to introduce you to William Wiethoff of Port Wing, Wisconsin. Wiethoff is an amateur astronomer who loves the night sky. It’s a given that every clear night, he’ll be out either observing or photographing everything from galaxies to the moon with his 14-inch telescope. Wiethoff wastes no starlight.

His passion is photographing recently discovered supernovas in galaxies. You’ll recall from the black hole blog two days ago, that when a giant star’s nuclear furnace runs out of atoms to "burn," it shuts down. The star quickly collapses in upon itself and then rebounds in a titanic explosion called a supernova.

The near-total annihilation causes to star to brighten millions of times, glowing like a beacon across the cosmos. Some supernovas are brighter than all the millions of stars that make up a galaxy’s core and easily visible in modest telescopes.

In any given year, scientists and amateur astronomers discover more than 500 exploding stars. They’re named after the year and the letters of the alphabet. SN 2008 A was the first supernova discovered this year. After all 26 individual letters are used, the letters are then paired in sequence. SN 2008 AA was the 27th discovery, SN 2008 AB, the 28th and so on. 

It makes you stand back in wonder as you look at a star in a galaxy millions of light years away, knowing you’re witnessing the end of its life.

This is what motivates Wiethoff. He also shares his supernovae photos with scientists, who glean information from them that help piece together the story of a star’s final days. "Whenever I see one of these cataclysmic events I can’t help but think this galaxy is alive, and I wonder what kind of worlds and stories live there in this far, far away galaxy," said Wiethoff.

I hope you enjoy the selection of photos taken through his telescope. Later this week we’ll look at supernovae in our galaxy and why we haven’t seen one in over 400 years.

(Photo above of William Wiethoff preparing for a night’s observing / News Tribune file)