Supernova Spotting is for Amateurs

SCIENCE

With a simple telescope and camera, a citizen scientist has helped professional astronomers witness the never-before-seen beginnings of a star’s explosive death. (Scientific American)

Learn more about supernova baby pictures with our Q&A resource.

Teachers, scroll down for a quick list of key resources in our Teachers Toolkit.

These images were compiled from a series of 20-second exposures taken over 90 minutes by amateur astronomer Victor Buso. Supernova 2016gkg pops into view below the galactic bulge.
Photographs courtesy Víctor Buso and Gastón Folatelli

Discussion Ideas

SN 2016gkg is probably a type IIb supernova like SN 1993J, the one illustrated here.
Illustration by NASA, ESA, and A. Feild (STScI)
  • New research describes the “shock breakout phase” of a supernova. What is a supernova? Take a look at our resource for some help.
    • A supernova is the sudden, bright explosion of a massive star, at least eight times more massive than the Sun.
      • Supernovae are usually divided into two major categories.
        • A type I supernova describes an explosion in a binary star system in which at least one of the stars is a white dwarf, a small star nearing the end of its life cycle. The white dwarf accumulates matter from its companion star until nuclear fusion briefly re-ignites in its core, and this runaway nuclear reaction causes the white dwarf to explode.
        • A type II supernova describes an explosion that ends the life of a single, massive star—although this star may be part of a binary star system. There are many variants of type II supernovae. SN 2016gkg is probably type IIb. Consult the illustration above as a reference.
          • 1. Type IIb supernovae are products of binary star systems in which the stars have very different life cycles.
          • 2. The more massive star bloats to a giant phase, expanding as it burns a shell of hydrogen around its mostly-helium core. The giant star spills this envelope of hydrogen to its companion star.
          • 3. Eventually, the giant star goes supernova. It starts to run out of helium and begins to fuse heavier elements, including carbon, neon, oxygen, silicon, and iron. These heavier elements require higher rates of fusion to counteract gravity. But nothing can escape gravity, and ultimately the core becomes so massive it collapses on itself before violently exploding.
          • 4. The supernova results in one of three types of stellar remnants: a white dwarf, a neutron star, or a black hole. The less-massive companion survives—larger and hotter due to the hydrogen it picked up from its exploded sister.
          • Right now, SN 2016gkg is shrouded by a bright nebula from the explosion. (Number 3 in the illustration.) Scientists are waiting for the nebula to cool down and fade, which will allow them to observe any stellar remnant—likely a neutron star—and companion star.)
    • SN 2016gkg lies at the edge of NGC 613, a beautiful barred spiral galaxy (just like our own Milky Way) about 26 million parsecs (85 million light-years) from Earth.
    • Astronomers think SN 2016gkg’s progenitor star was a yellow supergiant about 20 times as massive as the sun.

 

 

 

 

 

TEACHERS TOOLKIT

Scientific American: A Star Is Shorn: The Fine Art of Spotting Supernovae Is Ideal for Amateurs

Cosmos: Caught on camera: the birth of a supernova

Nature: Amateur astronomer catches first glimpses of birth of a supernova

Nat Geo: Supernova Baby Pictures

(extra credit!) Nature: A surge of light at the birth of a supernova

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