Wow! Another bright supernova. This one was discovered less than 2 days ago in the bright Messier galaxy M95 in Leo. It’s still too early to know its type, but at magnitude 13.0 and rising rapidly, this one will probably be visible in small telescopes within a few days. Unlike the supernova in NGC 4790 reported here earlier today, this one is far from the galaxy’s center in an outer spiral arm. It’s also incredibly easy to find thanks to help from one of the brightest planets in the sky right now – Mars.
Mars is slowly moving westward toward Regulus, but tonight you’ll find M95 a mere 1/2 degree due south of the planet. Place Mars at the north end of your telescopic field of view, and M95 will be in the same view to the south. What a sweet coincidence! By Tuesday night, that distance will have increased to 1 degree. I’ll provide an updated map tomorrow showing Mars’ motion.
M95 is the 95th entry in a catalog of deep sky objects compiled by the astronomer Charles Messier in the 18th century. He created the catalog, so he could ignore these fuzzy comet-lookalikes as he hunted for comets, his favorite quarry. As anyone who’s looked at both comets and galaxies through a telescope, you know how similar the two appear despite their vastly different natures.
M95 is a beautiful, multi-armed spiral with a starry bar through its middle. It’s located 38 million light years from Earth and spans some 50,000 light years, making it about half the size of the Milky Way galaxy.
It’s not often a supernova pops off in a bright (mag. 9.7) Messier galaxy. Most are found in more obscure members of the galactic zoo. We’ll be watching the supernova tonight and every clear night. Magnitude 13.0 means you can see it at high power in a 6-inch telescope from dark skies. Anyone with an 8-inch instrument or larger should have no problem provided the air’s not too turbulent. Watch for updates and good luck in your hunt to see this star gone wild.
Update March 21, 2012 – The supernova, now named 2012 aw, remains steady at about 13.1 magnitude. It’s a Type IIP – the collapse and explosion of a supergiant star at the end of its life. Here’s a brand new blog on the topic. For more information and a chart including the movement of Mars, click HERE.