New Supernova In Phantom Galaxy M74 Makes Milky Way Look Like A Slacker

The recently discovered bright supernova 2013ej in the spiral galaxy M74 in the constellation Pisces the Fish seen here on July 28. The object is located 93″ east and 135″ south of the galaxy’s center. Credit: Ernesto Guido and Nick Howes (also for animation below)

I think I’m ready to move to another galaxy. M74 has it all. Beautiful spiral arms, puffy pink star clouds and a brand new bright supernova, the third to appear in fewer than a dozen years. Its latest exploding star, dubbed SN 2013ej was discovered by the Lick Observatory Supernova Search at Lick Observatory near San Jose, Calif.

The galaxy M74 is the 74th entry in a catalog of star clusters, nebula and galaxies compiled by French astronomer Charles Messier in the 18th century. M74 is 32 million light years away and about 30,000 light years across or about 1/3 the size of the Milky Way. Credit: Hubble Space Telescope / NASA / ESA

The Lick search uses a fully robotic or automated 30-inch (76 cm) telescope dedicated to scanning the skies for new supernovae. It scooped up M74’s latest exploding star on July 25 shining at a respectable 12.4 magnitude. Two previous supernovae flared in the galaxy – SN 2002ap and SN 2003gd – and rose to 12th and 13th magnitude respectively.

A combination optical and X-ray image of the expanding remains of the supernova that Kepler saw in 1604. The explosion was a Type Ia event that involved the destruction of a white dwarf star 13,000 light years from Earth. Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/NCSU/M. Burkey et al. Optical: DSS

So what’s going on with the Milky Way? The last supernova to flare in our neighborhood was seen by Johannes Kepler in 1604 before the telescope had even been invented. Since then, we’ve “suited up” with instruments of every kind ready to splice and dice the light of a nearby supernova in every imaginable way. Part of the reason for our perception of the Milky Way as a slacker may have to do with dust. Astronomers have discovered two recent supernovae that might have visible with the naked eye were it not for their locations deep within the galaxy, hidden by dense, dark clouds of interstellar dust.

Animation showing the supernova before and after discovery.

Over the weekend I made a pilgrimage to the countryside to see this newcomer to the intergalactic scene. It still shines brightly – for a star 32 million light years from Earth – at 12.5 magnitude, making it an easy catch in 8-inch and larger telescopes. The last quarter moon was less than a fist away from M74 at the time, rendering the galaxy itself invisible. Since then, the moon has since slimmed to a thick crescent and its glare is no longer an issue.

That’s why I encourage you to use the maps provided here to seek out the star’s final farewell for yourself.

While M74 is relatively bright and appears spectacular in long-exposure photos, it looks like a large, dim featureless glow in smaller telescopes. That’s how it got its nickname the “Phantom Galaxy”. Be patient and take your time to “star hop” to the supernova.

The galaxy M74 is about 1.5 degrees east-northeast of the star Eta Piscium just to the right of the small constellation Aries the Ram. The map shows the sky facing east around 1 a.m. in early August. Stellarium

In photos SN 2013ej looks much like the other faint stars nearby, which twinkle in the foreground and belong to the Milky Way, but it’s important to remember you’re seeing the annihilation of supergiant star at least 8 times the size of the sun.

Only days ago astronomers found an image of the likely progenitor (original star) before it blew up. They estimate is was at least 17,000 times more luminous than the sun before it ran out of fuel in its core and imploded. Now it shines with the light of nearly 10 million suns!

Supernovas come in a variety of gradations but they’re broadly divided into Type Ia and Type II. Type Ia involve the rapid and uncontrolled burning of a planet-sized white dwarf star when its penchant for funneling gas from a companion star causes it to gain too much weight. Once it passes the dreaded Chandrasekhar Limit, the dwarf becomes a thermonuclear bomb the size of the Earth with the mass of the sun.

Type II supernova explosions involve the destruction of a massive supergiant star. Credit: ESO

A Type II supernova happens when a massive star burns through its fuel supply until the needle hits empty. Without nuclear burning to produce the heat to fight back the force of gravity, which has been trying to crush the star into a point ever since it was born, the star collapses and then rebounds in a titanic explosion.

Besides a legacy of radiant light, star debris, the creation of heavy elements like gold and lead, a Type II event will sometimes leave behind a tiny, city-sized, rapidly-spinning neutron star – the much compressed core of the original star.

This map measures only about 1/2-degree wide and shows the galaxy and supernova in close. Selected star magnitudes from the AAVSO will  help you navigate to the object as well as estimate its brightness. North is up, west to the right. Map created with Chris Marriott’s SkyMap software

While I remain hopeful about seeing a Milky Way supernova in my remaining years on Earth, I’m happy to have the opportunity a dozen times or more a year to watch one from afar.

7 Responses

  1. Edward M. Boll

    I went on Ancestry. 1604 was before some of my ancestors of 12 generations before me were born.

  2. Stephan

    Hi Bob,
    I wouldn’t want to call our good old Milky Way a slacker. We’ll never know, but she may look just as pretty seen face-on from a distance. There may be supernovae going on in the ‘delta quadrant’ right now on the other side of our Home Galaxy, only we can’t see them, because of all the dust in between. And, you wouldn’t want a supernova explosion in our (solar) neighbourhood…it might grill you 🙂 (and the rest of life on Earth). – So, no reason to emigrate to M74 🙂 . But I’ll give it a try to find it during the next few nights.

    Greetings from Stuttgart, Germany

    1. astrobob

      Well, when it comes right down to it, there’s no place like home 🙂
      Good luck on your observation. I plan to see it tomorrow morning and the crescent moon as well.

  3. Larry Regynski

    If the next naked-eye supernova is only visible in the Southern Hemisphere, it might just as well be visible only on the other side of the galaxy! The Southern skies had 1987, so it is our turn.

    1. astrobob

      Hi Larry,
      You know, if the next supernova’s in the southern Milky Way I’ll be booking a flight!

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