“After your death you will be what you were before your birth.” –Arthur Schopenhauer
If only every star’s death could be as glorious as a supernova, rocketing anywhere from thousands to millions of Earth-masses out of a star and into interstellar space. When we get one in our galaxy, like we do every few hundred years, the view from Earth can be spectacular.
The Crab Nebula, above, sprung from a supernova nearly a thousand years ago, in 1054. And while that supernova, and a handful of others since, have been visible from Earth with nothing more than the naked eye, we haven’t had that pleasure since 1604. The remnant of that supernova, of course, is still visible today, although it looks no more impressive in visible light than the very end of a fireworks display.
While every astronomer would love to have the chance to see a supernova in our own galaxy, these aren’t the sorts of things we can control. Instead, we have to be content to see what the Universe gives us to look at. We came close a generation ago, in 1987, when a supernova went off in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a satellite galaxy just 160,000 light years away. Under ideally dark skies, the supernova was just barely visible to the unaided eye in the Southern Hemisphere.
For a generation since then, we haven’t had a supernova occur anywhere near as close as that one. Which is too bad, because our telescope technology and coverage, today, is the greatest it’s ever been.
Despite the deceptive image above, the Pinwheel Galaxy is actually incredibly difficult to observe without extraordinarily dark skies, despite its close proximity to us. The reason? As far as spiral galaxies go, the Pinwheel, intrinsically, has an extremely low surface brightness.
You should consider yourself incredibly lucky if you can get a view like this of the Pinwheel Galaxy.
The supernova that went off on the 24th of August — PTF11kly — is reaching peak brightness this weekend (between the 9th and the 12th of September), and has been photographed by a few great people, including Rick Johnson, below, with a 14″ telescope,
and this image, retrieved from the Rose City Astronomers:
The Moon is out! Even more maddening, the Moon is out in the early part of the night, when the Pinwheel galaxy is best viewed. But contrary to what everyone else is telling you, here’s some good practical advice: wait a week.
Yes, that’s right, wait. Supernovae take a long time to fade away, and a week really won’t make much difference in terms of how bright the supernova itself appears. But the benefits are huge: a week from now (from about the 16th to the 19th), the early part of the night (between 8-10 PM) will have much less light pollution, because the Moon will not yet have risen. The Big Dipper will still be high in the sky, and if you can get yourself some dark skies, you should be able to find the Pinwheel Galaxy.
Start by finding the Big Dipper, above. These seven bright stars make up one of the best known constellations/asterisms in the sky, and are instantly recognizable to even the most casual of northern hemisphere skywatchers.
I’ve included the location of the Pinwheel Galaxy with a tiny orange circle, but getting there takes a bit of finesse. Here’s the easiest way to do it, and here’s what you’re looking for.
The end of the handle of the Dipper is named Alkaid, the one next to it is the double star, Mizar/Alcor, easily resolvable with even a low power telescope (and by some of you with your naked eye). Set up your telescope to center on the Mizar/Alcor pair.
This shows you what you might see through a large field-of-view finderscope. (Without the labels, of course.) Mizar is the brighter of the two; Alcor is slightly dimmer but is still one of the brighter stars in the sky. If you draw an imaginary line from Mizar through Alcor and keep going, you’ll come to a relatively bright, bluish star before too long. Although barely at the limit of what’s visible to the naked eye, it’s easily visible through even binoculars. Center on that star, and then look towards the left.
A brighter, orange star should be apparent, about the same distance from the blue one you’re at now as it was from Mizar/Alcor. Center on that orange one (if you can’t see color, it’s simply the next bright one up and to the left), and look — again — up and to the left.
There should be two more relatively bright, bluer stars in a row, again about the same distance away as the last two jumps you made. Take those two jumps, to the second blue star, and then, instead of continuing up and to the left, look straight up, away from the handle of the Big Dipper.
The whole point of waiting a week to do this is that, with the Moon out, the sky will be too bright for you to make out this galaxy! But with the Moon still below the horizon and light pollution at a minimum, you should be able to see — however faintly — the Pinwheel Galaxy!
If you’ve got good viewing conditions and good enough equipment, you should be able to see something like this.
Now, this is what the Pinwheel Galaxy looked like without the supernova in it!
But there will be one extra bright “spot” on the galaxy, where the supernova is. Where should you look? Well, if you followed my directions there, you should have the same orientation through your eyepiece as I have in the image above.
So look here:
If this patch of the galaxy has a (relatively) bright, compact light source in it, congratulations! You’ve just found yourself a supernova!
So be patient and bide your time; I’d hate for you to look with a nearly full Moon shining and get frustratingly disappointed. Wait a week. The supernova will fade a little, but the rewards will still be there for you. And no matter what you’re doing, enjoy the night sky, and the fact that the light from a single exploded star traveled for 21 million years, all the way to our eyes!