I am jazzed up. I finally got a picture of the supernova SN 2011fe in the Pinwheel Galaxy last night using only a telephoto lens on a tracking mount. The moon is now nearly at last quarter and doesn’t flood the sky with light like it does around full phase. This provides us all with another round of opportunities to see the supernova before it fades. For almost a week, it’s been humming along at magnitude 9.9. As you can tell from the before-and-after sequence above, it’s hard to miss!
Here’s a link to two maps to help you find the SN 2011fe or you can use the photo above. It will soon begin to fade, so take some time the next clear night and treat your eyes to a big blast. You can either use big binoculars (20 x 80mm or 30 x 80mm on up), a small telescope or even a spotting scope to see it.
Type Ia supernovae like the Pinwheel star are produced when a white dwarf star gobbles matter from a close companion star. When critical mass is reached, the increase in pressure and density within the dwarf initiates the fusion of carbon atoms in the core which releases enough energy to completely and explosively burn through the star. Try to picture a thermonuclear bomb the size of a large city going off to grasp the power of this stellar .
The star suddenly rises from invisibility to maximum light in the space of a few weeks then takes several months or more to fade away. Type Ia explosions are bright enough to be visible across billions of light years. That and their similarity to one another allow astronomers to use them as “standard candles” to determine distances to galaxies billions of light years away.
I also looked at our good friend Comet Garradd last night which continues shining around 7th magnitude high in the southwestern sky. I’ve prepared the map above you can use to find the comet between now and mid-October.
Because of viewing perspective involving the combined motions of Earth and the comet, Garradd will appear to slow down in the coming weeks, remaining in one small area of the sky near the trio of faint naked eye stars 109,110 and 111 Herculis in the constellation Hercules. It’s faintly visible in binoculars and a pretty sight with a fat tail pointing southeast in a telescope.