The recent bright supernova SN 2014J discovered in the M82, the Cigar Galaxy, earlier this week has brightened up to magnitude 10.5 by some estimates. While I saw it last night at 11.5, I’m not complaining. Beginning and amateur astronomers the world over have been out braving the cold to get a look at this stellar beacon.
Don’t have a telescope but want to see a live image? Check out the Virtual Telescope Project 2.0 featuring Italian astrophysicist Gianluca Masi on astrowebtv.org . Starting this afternoon (Jan. 25) at 2:30 p.m. CST you can join the online observing session.
Lots more data on the supernova has been pouring in. Here’s what we know so far:
* SN 2014J is a Type Ia-HV supernova. HV stands for high-velocity and indicates that explosive gases have been rushing outward from the obliterated star at exceptional speeds. Early measurements on Jan. 22 clocked clouds of gas at over 12,400 miles per second (20,000 km/sec). To put this in context, the debris would make the trip from California to Maine in 1/4 second.
* Astronomers estimate it was discovered about a week before maximum brightness. That would indicate a peak on or around Jan. 29.
* SN 2014J is “highly reddened”, meaning that there is a great deal of dust in the host galaxy it has to shine through for its light to reach us. Without reddening, the explosion would be even brighter.
* White dwarf stars – one of which was the progenitor of this M82 supernova – are typically made of carbon and oxygen, the waste products left by the fusion of hydrogen and helium during the star’s lifetime. Once a star becomes a white dwarf it’s done fusing elements, so it twiddles its thumbs cooling off over the next trillion years.
BUT … when it explodes as a supernova, waste carbon and oxygen fuse in the fury of heat and pressure to create a new element, silicon. That’s exactly what astronomers are seeing now in SN 2014J’s spectrum, a map of the star’s light made with a spectrograph. Spectrographs spread out a star’s light to “fingerprint” the elements of which it’s composed. Silicon is also produced “naturally” by fusion in the cores of supergiant stars, some of which can explode as Type II supernovae.
Silicon combined with oxygen is the most common compound in Earth’s crust. Next time you admire an agate or feel the sand between your toes, look up and thank a supernova.