WHAT'S UP: Supernova near the Big Dipper visible this weekend

Sep 16, 2011

Lacking a measure of creativity, they named the supernova PTF11kly. By convention, this supernova also inherited the name SN 2011fe; it is the 161st supernova to be discovered this year.

The telescope and computing system credited with the discovery is called the Palomar Transient Factory. The PTF was designed to do rapidly search for transient optical events in part of the observable Universe.

The main telescope of the PTF saw first light in mid December 2008 and has been running full tilt since August 2009.

PTF11kly has created quite a stir among astrophysicists, astronomers, reporters and bloggers (and community columnists). As of this morning, reporting an ever more popular way of ranking the significance of a trending event, Google indicates about 67,900 results for the search term “PTF11kly”, and more than 1.4 million results for “Pinwheel supernova.”

PTF11kly occurred in the Pinwheel Galaxy, a galaxy just 21 million light years from our own, and one that is a long-time favorite target for amateur and professional astronomers alike.

In dark skies, presently an hour or so after sunset, you can find the Pinwheel Galaxy — and the supernova — with a good pair of binoculars held steady on a tripod, or with a small telescope.

Since Wednesday, PTF11kly has flared to a brightness about 5 million times that of the sun, making it stand out like a lighthouse in the Pinwheel Galaxy. PTF11kly will slowly fade over the coming months.

Supernovae are run-of-the-mill common — or very rare — depending on how one decides such things.

Canonical estimates are that in a galaxy about the size of our own Milky Way — which contains about 200 billion stars — there is only about 1 supernova every 100 years. Since there are about 100 billion galaxies in the about 10-billion-year-old universe, supernovae occur maybe 30 times per second.

What has PTF11kly trending so vigorously is that it is the closest supernova in decades, affording scientists the opportunity to study the detonation in detail, and allowing backyard astronomers to see it with their own two eyes (or one, squinting through a telescope).

It is a good thing that stars don’t go supernova too frequently. If a star near the sun were to go off, it would wipe out all life hundreds of light years around.

As luck would have it, you probably can get a glimpse of the Pinwheel supernova yourself this weekend.

The Shoreline Amateur Astronomical Association — a group based out of Holland — and the Ottawa County Parks Department are hosting a public program and outdoor observing session Saturday evening at Hemlock Crossing Park off U.S. 31 in West Olive.

The program will begin indoors at 7:30 p.m., followed by outdoor observing from 8:30-10:30 p.m. The outdoor session — weather permitting — will afford you the opportunity to view a number of celestial objects through a variety of telescopes.

Hope to see you there.

For more information check the SAAA website at http://holland-saaa.org/.

— By Doug Furton, a Grand Haven resident and a member of the physics faculty at GVSU. Send questions and suggestions to dgf@inbox.com.

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