Supernova!

Contributed by
Sep 18, 2006
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Update: I added a picture below of the three folks involved with this blog entry; in my rush to post this last night from the Las Vegas airport I forgot to add it initially!

In a recent blog entry, I said that a lot of deals in astronomy (and science in general) are done at bars. Something about the atmosphere, the collegiality, the sense of comrades; they lubricate the gears of progress.

I wasn’t kidding. I just literally sat through it.

If you’re an amateur astronomer, you know the name Tim Puckett: his images of the sky are legendary. He’s an artist when it comes to taking pictures of astronomical images. He runs a fleet of telescopes from his base in Georgia. He has ‘scopes all over the country, and people to operate them.

The other night, Tim got a phone call from one of his operators. In a routine imagining run, they found a bright star in an image of a galaxy, and when they checked old images it wasn’t there. They checked to see if it might be an asteroid, a chunk of rock a mile or two across that happened to get in the way. The check turned up nothing.

The operator was getting excited. Was it a supernova, the titanic death spasm of a massive star? They needed to confirm it using a different telescope, preferably one as far from the original as possible to minimize any errors. Unfortunately there were no other well-placed ‘scopes in Tim’s network, so the operator called him.

And where was Tim? Sitting in a bar with a dozen other astronomers! At the time, there was a meeting of astronomers and educators going on. It was after hours, and the scientists had gathered at a bar to blow off steam. This turned out very well for Tim indeed…

Gina Brissenden was sitting next to him -- she's part of "Out of the Rain Productions" – and overheard. She told Tim that her friend Jake Noell-Storr – who was also there at the bar -- might be able to help. Jake had the phone number for the operations room of the MDM telescope, a 2.4 meter behemoth in Arizona. Jake made the call, and handed the phone back to Gina.

Gina introduced herself as an astronomer from Steward observatory, and asked if the folks at MDM could give Tim a hand. The answer? Of course!

This is the wonderfulness of astronomy: those professional astronomers stopped what they were doing so they could help some amateur astronomers they don't even know to confirm a supernova. They got the coordinates from Tim and put the ‘scope on the field immediately. Within minutes he got the word back from MDM that there was definitely a bright star in the field. A few minutes later another call came in: they checked old records, and the star wasn’t there. It was looking good—not 100% confirmed, but it was pretty much a lock. Tim had bagged a supernova!

Remember: this was discovered by what is technically an "amateur" astronomer, and confirmed within minutes -- just because they asked! -- by a major professional observatory.

Spirits ran high after that. Literally, in fact, as Gina went to the bartender, told him the news, and asked him to create a new drink called a Supernova.

If you’re wondering how I know all this, the answer should be fairly obvious by now: I was sitting right there the whole time. I didn’t participate, but instead soaked it all up (for the record, the Supernova drinks didn't come out until after 1:00 a.m., and I had a 7:30 meeting so I bagged on the drinks). The next day, the supernova was indeed confirmed for real, and was at a magnitude of 17.4 when discovered-- about 20,000 times fainter than you can see with your unaided eye.

Imagine! This galaxy, this nearly anonymous galaxy a few hundred million light years away might be thought to have no direct impact on us on Earth. But a mighty star in that distant galaxy ran out of fuel, exploded, and flooded the Universe with light. Across that crushing distance the expanding sphere of photons expanded, diluting as it spread out. By the time the that sphere touched us here, even big telescopes were only able to catch and count a few thousand photons.

That’s not enough light to illuminate a gnat, but it was enough to have a profound effect on us.

Gina, Tim, and Jake a few minutes after MDM called back.