Hubble uses gravity axe to cleave one supernova into 4

The powerful gravity of a galaxy embedded in a massive cluster of galaxies in this Hubble Space Telescope image is producing multiple images of a single distant supernova far behind it. Both the galaxy and the galaxy cluster are acting like a giant cosmic lens, bending and magnifying light from the supernova behind them, an effect called gravitational lensing. The image shows the galaxy's location within a hefty cluster of galaxies called MACS J1149.6+2223, located more than 5 billion light-years away. In the enlarged inset view of the galaxy, the arrows point to the multiple copies of the exploding star, dubbed Supernova Refsdal, located 9.3 billion light-years from Earth. The images are arranged around the galaxy in a cross-shaped pattern called an Einstein Cross. The blue streaks wrapping around the galaxy are the stretched images of the supernova's host spiral galaxy, which has been distorted by the warping of space.

The powerful gravity of a galaxy embedded in a massive cluster of galaxies in this Hubble Space Telescope photo is producing multiple images of a single distant supernova far behind it. Both the galaxy and the galaxy cluster are acting like a giant cosmic lens, bending and magnifying light from the supernova behind them, an effect called gravitational lensing. Credit: NASA, ESA

Gravity gathers together and hews apart. The powerful gravity of a galaxy embedded in a massive cluster of galaxies called MACS J1149.6+2223 has split the light of distant supernova into four separate images, a phenomenon predicted by Einstein called gravitational lensing.

Although astronomers have discovered dozens of multiply imaged galaxies, they’ve never seen a lensed supernova explosion until last November. “It really threw me for a loop when I spotted the four images surrounding the galaxy – it was a complete surprise,” said Patrick Kelly of the University of California, Berkeley, a member of the Grism Lens Amplified Survey from Space (GLASS) collaboration. The GLASS team was studying deep Hubble images of 10 massive clusters when Kelly came across the scene.

Closer view of the massive galaxy in the heart of the MACS cluster

Closer view of the massive galaxy in the heart of the MACS cluster showing the four supernova images as well as patchy blue, distorted arcs of its home galaxy over 9 billion light years away. Credit: NASA/ESA

Named “Refsdal” for Sjur Refsdal, a Norwegian astrophysicist who did early work in the field of gravitational lensing, the supernova is located 9.3 billion light years from Earth, far beyond the galaxy cluster, which sits between us and the explosion 5 billion light years away. The images are arranged around the galaxy in a cross-shaped pattern called an Einstein Cross. The blue streaks wrapping around the galaxy are the stretched images of the supernova’s home spiral galaxy, which has been distorted by the warping of space.

As Einstein wrote in his General Theory of Relativity, massive objects warp the fabric of spacetime, a fusion of the three familiar dimensions with time. Light rays traveling across the spacetime landscape follow its invisible curves. Gravity from the Sun for instance deflects the light of a star passing near it from its original straight-line path. In effect, the Sun acts like a lens, bending and redirecting light from a distant source.

the redirected light passes through a giant elliptical galaxy within the cluster. This galaxy adds another layer of lensing, once again redirecting several light paths that would otherwise have missed us, and focusing them so that they do reach Earth.  Credit: NASA, ESA, and A. Feild (STScI)

Light from the supernova is not only distorted and split by the galaxy cluster but also while passing through a giant elliptical galaxy within the cluster. This galaxy adds another layer of lensing, redirecting several light paths that would otherwise have missed us and focusing them so that they do reach Earth. Credit: NASA, ESA, and A. Feild (STScI)

When light from a background object like Refsdal encounters a massive galaxy cluster, the cluster’s gravity not only bends the light but distorts and multiplies the single beam into multiple images. In the case of the supernova, both the cluster and a massive elliptical galaxy within the cluster, which happens to be precisely positioned directly between us and the exploding star, combine their gravitational chops to neatly cleave Refsdal into four symmetrically-arranged images.

While the galaxy cluster’s loaded with good, old-fashioned matter, it’s even richer in invisible dark matter, an unknown material that comprises 96% of all the matter in the universe. Studying changes in the multiple images over time will help astronomers refine their estimate of the cluster’s dark matter content.

Each image takes a different route through the cluster and arrives at a different time, due, in part, to differences in the length of the pathways the light follows to reach Earth. The four supernova images captured by Hubble, for example, appeared within a few days or weeks of each other.

Split up the galaxy cluster’s gravity, each image of the supernova takes a different route through the cluster  and arrives in our eyes at a different time, due, in part, to differences in the length of the pathways the light follows to reach Earth. We see four images around a particular galaxy now, but astronomers expect the images to shift around the cluster with time and appear in different places. 

As exotic as gravitational lensing is, it gets even weirder. When the four images fade away, astronomers predict they’ll have a rare opportunity to watch a rerun of the supernova. This is because the current four-image pattern is only one part of the lensing display. The 4-leaf-clover grouping we see here appeared within a few days or weeks of each other. The supernova may have appeared as a single image some 20 years ago elsewhere in the cluster field, and it is expected to reappear once more within the next five years.

Measuring the time delays between images gives astronomers clues to the type of warped-space terrain the supernova’s light had to cover and will help them fine-tune the models that map out the cluster’s mass.

Thank you Albert.

Doomed stellar relationship to end in supernova catastrophe

This artist impression shows the central part of the planetary nebula Henize 2-428. The core of this unique object consists of two white dwarf stars, each with a mass a little less than that of the Sun. They are expected to slowly draw closer to each other and merge in around 700 million years and explode as a dazzling supernova. Credit: ESO/L. Calcada

I’ve had a few relationships explode but none like what’s going to happen to this couple in 700 million years.

A team of astronomers, led by Miguel Santander-Garciá (Observatorio Astronómico Nacional, Alcalá de Henares, Spain), has discovered a close pair of white dwarf stars in the core of the planetary nebula Henize 2-428 in constellation Aquila the Eagle. White dwarfs are super-dense stellar remnants left over when stars like the Sun run out of nuclear fuel.

The planetary nebula Henize 2-428 photographed with the ESO’s Very Large Telescope at the Paranal Observatory in Chile. In its heart are two closely-orbiting white dwarf stars. Credit: ESO

Self-gravity causes a dwarf to collapse into an Earth-sized object so dense that a teaspoonful of matter scooped up from its surface would weigh outweigh even a large elephant. Lacking sufficient heat and pressure to fuse additional elements, white dwarfs sit and cool their heels for billions of years until becoming black dwarfs, mere cinders of their former selves.

Before settling into white-dwarfdom, many of the stars eject their atmospheres into space like the wizard Gandalf puffing clouds of smoke from his pipe. Ultraviolet light from the white dwarf causes the material to fluoresce in pinks and greens and assume intricate and amazing shapes. We call them planetary nebulas because many are round or oval-shaped and reminded early astronomers of planets.

Planetary nebulae are some of nature’s most artistic creations. Here’s a selection taken with the Hubble Space Telescope. Each is set glow by a white dwarf star (s) in its center. From left: the Butterfly Nebula, Cat’s Eye Nebula, Ring Nebula and Hourglass Nebula. Credit: NASA/ESA

Under the right circumstances a white dwarf can become a ticking time bomb. Santander-Garciá and crew weren’t looking for a bomb when they keyed in on the central star in Henize 2-428. They wanted to find out how some stars produce strangely shaped and asymmetric nebulae late in their lives. What they discovered led them to a fascinating prediction.

“When we looked at this object’s central star with ESO’s Very Large Telescope, we found not just one but a pair of stars at the heart of this strangely lopsided glowing cloud,” said co-author Henri Boffin from ESO.

This supported the current theory that a lot of planetary nebula shapes are woven from gases spun up and around by a pair of stars rather than a single white dwarf. Further observations allowed the group to determine the stars’ masses and separation. Each is slightly less massive then the Sun and they orbit one other every four hours, close enough to eventually merge into a single star within the next 700 million years.

Sequence showing two white dwarfs spiraling into one another, merging and then exploding as a supernova. As they spiral around each other, they emit gravitational waves causing them to grow ever closer. Credit: GSFC/Dana Berry.

According to Einstein’s general theory of relativity, two massive objects in very close orbit emit gravitational waves causing them to lose orbital energy and slowly spiral in toward one another. Henize 2-428’s whirling white dwarfs are destined to merge one day, and when they do, there’ll be fireworks of the first order.

Left in peace, a white dwarf won’t bother anybody, but take a big step back if one decides to put on extra weight. If a dwarf increases its mass, say by siphoning matter from a nearby companion star, it will collapse under its own weight, heat up and burn explosively as a supernova. Many supernovae we observe in galaxies across the universe occur in close binary systems where one star is a white dwarf and the other an ordinary star like our Sun. Another way of getting a supernova – at least theoretically – is by squishing two white dwarfs together.

Back in 1930, the Indian-American astrophysicist Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar determined that the greatest mass a white dwarf star can have and still support itself against gravitational collapse was about 1.4 times the mass of the Sun. So you can guess what’ll happen when Henize 2-428’s two white dwarfs merge. Ka-boom!

“Until now, the formation of supernovae Type Ia by the merging of two white dwarfs was purely theoretical,” explained David Jones, coauthor of the article and ESO Fellow at the time the data were obtained. “The pair of stars in Henize 2-428 is the real thing!”

Gosh, I only wish we could be around to watch.

Mercurial delights / Supernova in spiral galaxy M61 / Jupiter spots

Mercury shines brightly in the east-southeast more than an hour before sunrise this morning November 1. The planet remains well-placed for viewing for the coming 10 days. Credit: Bob King

Scattered thin clouds took nothing away from this morning’s otherwise clear sky. With the Moon waxing from quarter to gibbous phase, the slab of darkness between moonset and dawn gets sliced thinner every day. Starting November 4th the Moon will light the sky all night and not give back the darkness till next weekend. I took advantage of a moonless morning to set up the telescope to view two comets, a brand new supernova in the bright Virgo galaxy M61 and the planet Mercury at dawn.

Around 7 a.m. CDT (6 a.m. CDT) in bright twilight, Spica cleared the treetops about 5 degrees to the lower left of Mercury. Watch in the coming mornings as Spica slides up higher in the sky and Mercury slowly drops horizon-ward. Credit: Bob King

Normally I suggest looking for Mercury around 45 minutes before sunrise when it’s high enough for a good view, but if you have an wide open eastern horizon, go for it earlier. The planet is very bright right now at magnitude -0.6 — brighter than it’s nearest rival, Arcturus (0.0) located three outstretched fists to the upper left of Mercury. I was surprised at how bright and easy it was to see it more than an hour before sunrise.

In the next few mornings, Virgo’s brightest star Spica rises near the planet. Watch them do a do-si-do in the coming days as Spica passes Mercury.

Facing east about 50 minutes before sunrise tomorrow and Monday Nov. 2-3. Mercury will be near Spica and about three outstretched fists to the right and below Arcturus. Source: Stellarium

Gianluca Masi captured this view of the supernova 2014dt (tick marks) in the 9th magnitude barred spiral galaxy M61 in Virgo on Halloween. The galaxy is some 55 million light years from Earth. Credit: Gianluca Masi

Virgo brings more than a bright morning planet. Tucked with the broad “Y” or cup-shaped northern half of the constellation, the bright galaxy M61 glows with a brand new supernova visible in amateur telescopes.

Japanese amateur astronomer Koichi Itagaki discovered the new star on October 29 at magnitude +13.6. A little on the faint side, yes, but it has been slowly brightening. This isn’t the first time we’ve witnessed a supernova explosion in the galaxy. At least two others – 2006in and 2008ov – have been observed. Quite the hotbed!

View looking east just before the start of morning twilight. M61 is located in the big Virgo “Y” about three outstretched fists to the right and above brilliant Arcturus. Source: Stellarium

Enlarged view of Virgo to help you better track down M61. When you find it, the supernova will look like a star inside the galaxy east of the core. Click for a large version. Source: Stellarium

Right now, you’ll need an 8-inch or larger telescope and dark sky to see it. The best time is just before dawn when Virgo is highest in the eastern sky. Through the eyepiece of my 15-inch (37-cm) scope this morning the galaxy glowed big and round with a bright core. Supernova 2014dt was a dim “star” 40 arc seconds east and 7 seconds south of the nucleus. Use the maps above to help you find the galaxy.

This morning’s shadow transit of Jupiter’s largest moon Ganymede (left) and a future transit that will occur on November 8 between 3:35 – 7:12 a.m. CST. The Great Red Spot will also be nicely placed for viewing. Add 1 hour for EST, subtract 1 hour for MST and 2 hours for PST. Source: Meridian

I always save the bright planets for last not only because they provide a refreshingly bright treat after hunting comets and supernovae but also because I don’t want to destroy my night vision. But I got a great surprise when pointing the scope at Jupiter. Plain as could be, there was the shadow of the planet’s largest moon Ganymede silhouetted against the white clouds of the equatorial zone and next to it, Ganymede itself. For a minute it looked like two moons casting shadows on the planet. Compared to its shadow, Ganymede was smaller and gray-toned.

You can catch the next Ganymede shadow transit visible in the western hemisphere on the morning of November 8 from 3:35 to 7:12 a.m. CST. A 3-inch or larger telescope is all it takes to view it.

The sun rises just before 8 a.m. over the Wisconsin shoreline of Lake Superior this morning November 1. Credit: Bob King

What better way to top off a morning of sky watching than with a sunrise? Now maybe I’ll take a nap.

Moon, Mars, Saturn and Antares gather at dusk tonight

The crescent moon, Saturn and Mars will form a compact triangle in the southwestern sky in this evening August 31st. 3.5º separate the moon and Saturn; Mars and Saturn will be 5º apart. Antares is about two ‘fists’ to the east or left. Stellarium

Don’t miss tonight’s sweet gathering of crescent moon and evening planets. Just look to the southwest in late twilight to spot the trio.

Both Saturn and Mars happen to be exactly the same brightness, shining equally at magnitude 0.8, but each with a distinctly different hue. Can you see the contrast between rusty red Mars and vanilla-white Saturn?

Antares is a red supergiant that’s blowing a powerful stellar wind into space at the rate of several solar masses every million years. One day it’s likely to explode as a supernova. Credit: Wikimedia

All this happens in Libra, a dim zodiac constellation preceding the brighter and better known Scorpius. Scorpius brightest star, Antares, is similar to Mars in color and just a tad fainter.

Visually, this red supergiant star doesn’t even hint of its true proportions because it’s 620 light years away, too far to appear as anything more than a shifting point of light. Measuring in at three times the diameter of Earth’s orbit, if Antares were put in place of the sun, its bubbly surface extending beyond the orbit of Mars.

How Antares would appear if we could get close enough to see it based on simulations by A. Chiavassa and team. Huge convective cells of rising and sinking gas crinkle its surface. Click to read the group’s 2010 research paper on the star. Credit: A. Chiavassa et. all

Recent research shows the star dominated by enormous bubbles of incandescent hydrogen gas called convective cells. Although it has a mass some 18 times that of the sun, the star’s powerful winds – from convection and sheer radiant energy – blast away something like 3 solar masses of material into space every million years. Unless Antares slims down through mass loss, it’s destined to grow a core of iron, collapse and explode as a supernova in the future.

Chandra’s X-ray eyes behold catastrophe

To mark the 15th anniversary of NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, four newly processed images of supernova remnants illustrate Chandra’s ability to explore high-energy processes in the cosmos. See end of article for detailed explanations of each. Click to enlarge. NASA/CXC/SAO

15 years ago to the day, NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory opened its eyes to the high-energy universe. It was launched aboard the space shuttle Columbia and entered a long elliptical orbit that takes it more than a third of the distance to the moon before returning to its closest approach to Earth of 9,942 miles. This specially tailored path keeps it above the Van Allen radiation belts – which would interfere with its X-ray vision – more than 85% of the time.

Chandra’s long elliptical orbit around the Earth keeps it away from the Van Allen belts and allows the telescope to study an object up to 55 hours without interference. NASA

Chandra, named for Indian-American astrophysicist Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar who did groundbreaking work on white dwarf stars, is specially designed to detect X-rays emitted by hot and energetic objects in the universe. What we feel as heat – infrared light – is low-energy radiation. Planets, comets and asteroids warmed by the sun emit infrared as surely as our own bodies do.

Radio waves, some infrared and visible light penetrate the atmosphere and make it to the ground. Shorter wavelength light from energetic UV to gamma rays are stopped by the atmosphere. A good thing.

As we move to light of shorter wavelengths, energy content rises. Visible light is more energetic than infrared, UV light more so (it can give us a painful sunburn) and X-rays very much more so. To spew X-rays, something very powerful must be happening in space like a supernova explosion or matter heated to incandescence as it disappears down a black hole.

Earth’s atmosphere acts to filter out dangerous much of the more energetic particles and light waves careening around the cosmos, the reason Chandra had to be pitched into the vacuum of space to use its X-ray specs.

Chandra has observed objects ranging from the closest planets and comets to the most distant known quasars. It has imaged the remains of exploded stars, or supernova remnants, observed the region around the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way, and discovered black holes across the universe.

To celebrate the anniversary, NASA released  four newly processed pictures of supernova remnants, the dusty, gassy leftovers of stars blown to smithereens. Let’s take a look at each in turn:

Chandra view of the Crab Nebula expansion in just 7 months

* Crab Nebula: At its center is a city-sized, extremely compact, rapidly rotating neutron star left after the original sun went supernova in 1054 A.D. Also called a pulsar, the star spews zillions of high-speed particles that plow into the expanding debris field to create a ghostly X-ray nebula.

* G292.0+1.8:  One of only three supernova remnants in the Milky Way known to contain large amounts of oxygen. These oxygen-rich supernovas are of great interest to astronomers because they are one of the primary sources of elements heavier than hydrogen and helium that are necessary to form planets and people. The image shows a rapidly expanding debris field that contains, along with oxygen (yellow and orange), other elements such as magnesium (green) and silicon and sulfur (blue) that were forged in the star before it exploded.

* Tycho’s remnant: The supernova that created the remnant was first noticed by Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe in 1572 as a brand new star in the constellation Cassiopeia. The supersonic expansion of the exploded star produced a shock wave moving outward into the surrounding interstellar gas, and another, reverse shock wave moving back into the expanding stellar debris. Heated to millions of degrees, the gas and debris produce copious X-rays.

* 3C58: 3C58 is the remnant of a supernova observed in the year 1181 AD by Chinese and Japanese astronomers. It contains a rapidly spinning neutron star surrounded by a thick ring of X-ray emission. The pulsar also has produced jets of X-rays blasting away from it to both the left and right, and extending trillions of miles. These jets are responsible for creating the elaborate web of loops and swirls.

As a kid, we used to joke about wishing we had X-ray vision. Now we really do.

Australian astronomers find oldest known star in the universe

SMSS J031300.36-670839.3 – the oldest star ever found discovered with the SkyMapper telescope at the Siding Spring observatory in Australia. The star is smaller than the sun with a mass about 0.8 (or less) that of the sun. Credit: Space Telescope Science Institute/AAP

A team of scientists at the Australian National University led by Dr. Stefan Keller has discovered the oldest known star. Named SMSS J031300.36-670839.3, a dim magnitude 14.7 speck in the southern constellation Horologium the Clock (how appropriate!)

The 1.35-meter (53.1-inch) SkyMapper telescope used to track down the oldest star. Credit: Julia Karrer / ANU

SMSS 0313 (for short) is estimated to be about 13.6 billion years old, having formed just 180 million years after the origin of the universe in the Big Bang 13.78 billion years ago. The team used the university’s SkyMapper telescope at the Siding Spring observatory near Coonabarabran in northern New South Wales, Australia to make their discovery. It was later confirmed with the giant 6.5-meter (256-inch) Magellan telescope in Chile.

How do you determine a star’s age? You look for heavy elements. Back at the start of everything, the universe consisted almost exclusively of only the lightest, simplest elements, hydrogen and helium. The first generation of stars congealed from this simple mix and cooked up heavier elements through by fusing hydrogen and helium in their cores.

When they exploded as supernovae, new stuff never seen before like carbon, oxygen and iron were released into space to seed a second generation of stars. Those stars cooked up additional elements to enrich future generations of suns with still more complex elements. Our own sun, a relative latecomer on the scene, contains small amounts of all 92 natural elements right up to uranium, though the bulk of that fiery sphere – about 98% – is still hydrogen and helium.

Astronomers learn what chemical elements and compounds make up a star by spreading its light out into a rainbow called a spectrum. Each element creates its own “fingerprint” pattern of black lines called absorption lines.

To find SMSS 0313, Keller and team sifted though the spectra of 60 million stars. Spectra reveal a star’s chemical makeup through a “fingerprinting” process based on the colors of light absorbed by elements in its outer shell. They avoided stars dirtied by heavy elements like the sun and concentrated on those with signatures showing extremely low iron content.

Iron is cooked up in the cores of supergiant stars and released during supernovae explosions. Younger generation stars show more iron in their spectra thanks to contributions from previous generations.

SMSS 0313’s light revealed 10 million times less iron than found in the sun – the lowest iron abundance ever detected in a star. Based on that miniscule amount, the astronomers pegged it as a second generation star. One

As supergiant stars age, they fuse lighter elements into heavier elements in their core. When iron (Fe) and nickel (Ni) form, the fusion process stops and the star collapses and explodes as a Type II supernova, releasing heavier elements into space. Credit: NASA

Intriguingly, SMSS 0313’s chemical balance – rich in carbon and low in iron – hints at the composition of the very first generation of stars. It’s believed a star with a mass 60 times that of the sun underwent a low-energy explosion, primarily releasing elements like carbon from its outer envelope and taking most of its core iron on a one-way trip down the black hole that formed at the heart of the explosion.

So much drama, and all to make a star that’s quietly burned its chemical firewood for nearly the age of the universe.

Supernova 2014J in M82: What’s left after the party’s over?

Supernova 2014J in M82, the Cigar Galaxy, appears to have peaked in late Jan.-early Feb. at around magnitude 10.5. It’s now slowly beginning to fade. This photo taken Jan. 31 near peak. Credit: Joseph Brimacombe

Even with the moon filling out and lighting up the sky this week, supernova 2014J remains an easy catch in 4-inch and larger telescopes. One advantage of all the bitter cold weather in the U.S. Midwest has been a succession of clear nights like we haven’t seen in months. Maybe years.

Like many, I’ve had lots of opportunities to get out and see the progress of the star since its discovery on Jan. 21. Last night it still glowed at magnitude 10.9, a slight decline in brightness since peaking early this month at about 10.5.

M82 is also called the Starburst Galaxy. Vigorous new star formation blasts fiery-looking plumes of glowing hydrogen out of its central regions. Click to enlarge. Credit: NASA, ESA, and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

Color photos show the supernova tinted orange, reddened by dust clouds within the galaxy. This reddening is no surprise given how dusty the Cigar Galaxy is. M82 produces far more new stars than the Milky Way, the reason it’s also known as the Starburst Galaxy.

Powerful stellar winds from so many new stars sweeps dust and gas from the core and sends it flying across the galaxy. Later, even more dust is released when older generations of stars evolve, expand (or explode as supernova) and leave behind ice and silicate ash that filters and reddens the light of the supernova.

Curves showing how the supernova in M82 started out faint (left), and peaked at the beginning of this month. Notice how much fainter 2014J is in blue light compared to red. Visual observations are shown in green. Credit: AAVSO

You can see the dramatic effects of reddening in the light curves created by the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO) based on observations compiled by amateur astronomers. In blue light (lower curve) 2014J peaked at magnitude 11.6, but in red light (top) it was nearly two magnitudes brighter.

Had the supernova erupted in a less dusty part of the galaxy, it’s estimated that it would have peaked closer to magnitude 9, putting it within reach of 50mm binoculars!

Dust is likely behind the difficulty in finding the pre-explosion progenitor star and its companion. Professional astronomers have dug through archival pictures and data from the Chandra X-ray and Hubble Space telescopes as far back as 1999 but nothing’s turned up yet.

The progenitor and evolution of a Type Ia supernova. Credit: NASA, ESA, and A. Field (STScI)

Unlike a Type II supernova explosion of a supergiant star, 2014J involved the cataclysmic destruction of a planet-sized white dwarf star in close orbit around a red giant star. Material siphoned off the companion built up on the dwarf’s surface until it reached critical mass and self-destructed in a supernova explosion. Astronomers call this a Type Ia blast.

Clouds of dust are silhouetted against the young star cluster IC 2944 in the Milky Way galaxy. Similar clusters and dust clouds litter M82. Credit: ESO

White dwarfs and their companions are small and faint compared to a supergiant progenitor, making the search that much more difficult. Based on deep (long-time exposure) archival images taken with the Hubble Space Telescope and the galaxy’s distance of about 12 million light years, a team of astronomers recently proposed that the dwarf’s companion is a subgiant, a star larger, brighter and further evolved than the sun but not yet in the red giant stage. Procyon in the constellation Canis Minor is a good example of a subgiant.

Subgiants can be more or less massive. If more massive, they evolve into helium stars with powerful winds and rapid mass loss, making them worthy competitors in an intergalactic version of TV’s “The Biggest Loser”.

Another view of the supernova in the dusty galaxy M82 taken on Jan. 29 near Trieste, Italy with an 8-inch telescope. Credit: Giorgio Rizzarelli

If less massive, the remnant would develop into a helium white dwarf. Astronomers will be studying the explosion site for a long time looking for clues of what’s been left behind. Like detectives in a murder case, they hope to reconstruct the scene of this catalclysmic crime.

M82 supernova 2014J update … see it LIVE this afternoon

Supernova 2014J is visible in 4-inch and larger telescopes and currently shines around magnitude 11. Credit: Katzman Automatic Imaging Telescope / LOSS

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 . 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:

Wide field photo showing M82 “The Cigar Galaxy” and its true physical neighbor M81. The supernova is marked. Hundreds of supernovae are found each year by wide-ranging professional and amateur surveys of thousands of galaxies. The last recorded supernova visible with the naked eye in the Milky Way galaxy was in 1604. Click to learn more. Credit: Joseph Brimacombe

* 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.

Spectrum of supernova 2014J taken on Jan. 25, 2014 by William Wiethoff of Port Wing, Wisconsin U.S. shows the light of silicon at 6099.91 angstroms in the orange part of the visible spectrum. At the time, the star’s debris was traveling toward us at about 7,500 miles (12,000 km) per second. Inset photo and diagram: William Wiethoff

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.

Updated sketch of M82, the supernova and nearby stars with magnitudes shown. To make your own chart, click image to go to the AAVSO star plotter, then type in SN 2014J in the “Name” box. Illustration: Bob King

Closest, brightest supernova in 21 years goes boom in M82, the Cigar Galaxy

Before and after photo animation of the new bright supernova discovered overnight in the galaxy M82 in Ursa Major. Credit: Ernesto Guido, Nick Howes & Martino Nicolini

Like one of those famous exploding cigars in a Groucho Marx movie, nature imitates life by producing an exploding cigar of its own – a brand new, bright supernova in the “Cigar Galaxy” M82 in the Great Bear. It was discovered only last night by astronomer S. J. Fossey at magnitude 11.7. Very bright!

Even a 3-inch telescope under a dark sky can snare this one. While there have been brighter supernovae – and who knows, this one may very well get brighter yet – this is the brightest, closest supernova since SN 1993J popped off in neighboring galaxy M81.

The supernova in M82 is located 54″ west and 21″ south of the galaxy’s center along its long axis. Credit: Leonid Elenin

M82 goes by the nickname the Cigar Galaxy from its highly elongated shape. Through a small telescope it looks like a ghostly streak of light. At just 12 million light years from Earth it’s one of the closer galaxies to our home, making it bright enough to see in binoculars. Through a telecope, M82 is closely accompanied by the equally bright galaxy M81. Together they’re a favorite target on winter and spring nights for beginning and amateur astronomers.

M82 as pictured by the Hubble Space Telescope. A huge burst of new star formation is happening in the galaxy’s core. Click to enlarge. Credit: NASA/ESA

The big surprise is that no one found the object sooner. Most supernovae are spotted either by professional survey programs or amateur versions of the same when they’re around 15th magnitude or fainter. Not this one. It was brighter than 12th magnitude at discovery, but had someone been looking, it was easily visible in amateur instruments as early as January 16 at magnitude 13.9, brightening to 13.3 on the 17th and 12.2 on the 19th. Yikes! Why wasn’t I out looking at this galaxy?

The new supernova, with the temporary name of PSN J09554214+6940260, is a Type Ia explosion. In plain English, what we’re witnessing back here from our cozy homes on Earth is the complete annihilation of a super compact planet-size star called a white dwarf. Before anyone knew the star would explode, it spent millenia gravitationally siphoning off gas from a very close companion star. That material accumulated on its sizzling surface, adding to the weight of the little star. When the star reached the ultimate limit of 1.4 times the mass of the sun, it imploded under its own weight, heated up to billions of degrees and burned explosively. Boom! A supernova was born.

Use this map to point yourself in the right direction. It shows the sky facing north around 8 p.m. local time. M82 is paired with M81 about a “fist” above the bowl of the Big Dipper in the constellation Ursa Major. Stellarium

I know that the cold won’t keep you from wanting to see the new star so I’ve prepared a couple charts to help you find it. The first is a wide view to get situated; the second hones in to bring your directly to the galaxy. Be careful not to mix up M82 with its neighbor M81. M81 has a much rounder shape with a bright, distinct central core or nucleus. M82, an edge-on spiral galaxy, looks like a thin streak of light with a mottled texture. You’ll find the supernova west and south of M82’s center along the galaxy’s long axis. Look for a small star shining against the galaxy unresolved haze of stars.

To navigate to M82 find the Dipper Bowl and look above it for the easy naked eye star (mag. 3.5) 23 UMa. From there you can star hop to the triangular figure and down to the two stars forming a line. The galaxy is just below it. Stellarium

UPDATE: Sketch made Jan. 22 at 9 p.m. CST of M82 of the supernova, now called SN 2014J, through a 15-inch (37 cm) telescope. A wonderful arc of three bright stars (on left) guides you straight to it. You can’t miss it in telescopes 3 inches and up as the object is the only bright star shining in the galaxy. Numbers shown next to the stars are magnitudes to help you track the supernova’s brightness changes. Illustration: Bob King

Good luck in your quest to see one of the coolest sights in the night sky.

“Hand of God” fancied in X-ray glow of pulsar wind nebula

The pattern of an open hand is easy to imagine in this recent X-ray photo of a supernova’s cloudy remains. The structure radiating high-energy X-rays is shown in blue. Lower-energy X-ray light previously detected by NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory is shown in green and red. Click to enlarge. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/McGill

A new X-ray photo taken by NASA’s Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR) showing a cloud of ejected material from a former supernova shows an eerie shape reminiscent of a hand reaching into space. A thumb of glowing gas extends from the palm; higher up, ghostly fingers touch a speckled red haze. Nicknamed the “Hand of God” it’s the remnant debris cloud from a long-ago exploding star.

Model of a pulsar, a tiny, rapidly rotating star that’s had its electrons and protons crunched together into pure neutrons during the core collapse in a supernova explosion. Beams of electromagnetic radiation and particles shoot out from the star’s poles as it rotates. Credit: NASA

Buried within lies the pulsar PSR B1509-58, itself a remnant of the supernova.This superdense, city-sized star spins around seven times a second and fires a wind of particles and radiation into the cloud. As they interact with the magnetic fields threading the supernova’s dregs, X-rays are released causing the cloud to glow.

A pulsar is the rapidly rotating neutron star that beams a pulse of radiation like a lighthouse during every spin. It’s what remains of a supergiant star’s core after it collapses and compacts in the wake of a supernova explosion. Almost all the empty space between and within atoms is squeezed out as electrons and protons are crushed into neutrons.

Not only are neutron stars fantastically dense – all the people of the Earth would fit in one teaspoon of pulsar star matter – but incredibly small. Pulsars pack at least one to three sun’s worth of material into a sphere some 6-15 miles (10-25 km) across.

When the pulsar’s beam sweeps in Earth’s direction we see a quick blip of light. The fastest spinning pulsar, named PSR J1748-2446ad, revolves at 716 times per second! Credit: W. Kramer

The pulsar is located inside the bright white spot and can’t be seen in the photo, but it’s energetic interaction with the remaining supernova gases creates the hand-shaped nebula. The red cloud at the end of the finger region is a different structure, called RCW 89. Astronomers think the pulsar’s wind is heating the cloud, causing it to glow with lower-energy X-ray light. One of the unanswered questions is whether the pulsar’s emissions light up the cloud in the shape of a hand or whether the cloud really has a natural hand shape.

Terms like “God particle” and “Hand of God” are great ways of making a human connection to cosmic wonders, but I’ll admit I cringe a little whenever I hear them because they might imply a supernatural explanation when there’s a perfectly natural one at hand.

Left image is normal while the right side of the right image has been darkened using the “hand of God” burning technique in Photoshop. Credit: Bob King

Funny. Back in the darkroom days when we used enlargers to project a negative image on a sheet of photo-sensitive paper and then dipped the sheets into developer to watch the images magically appear, “Hand of God” had an entirely different meaning.

We’d often darken the bright borders of our photographs so they’d look better in the newspaper by creating a small aperture with our fist under the enlarger lens.  Light pouring through the hole would be directed to this or that area of paper like a flashlight to darken or “burn it in”. We called it “hand of God” burning because it was artificial – not in the original photo – and sometimes used or misused to overpowering effect.

However you see the wonder of the universe from darkroom to pulsar winds, may it always buoy your spirits.