'Instant cosmic classic' supernova discovered

August 25, 2011 by Linda Vu
These images show Type Ia supernova PTF 11kly, the youngest ever detected -- over the past three nights. The left image taken on Aug. 22 shows the event before it exploded supernova, approximately one million times fainter than the human eye can detect. The center image taken on August 23 shows the supernova at about 10,000 times fainter than the human eye can detect. The right image taken on Aug. 24 shows that the event is six times brighter than the previous day. In two weeks time it should be visible with a good pair of binoculars. Credit: Peter Nugent/LBNL and Palomar Observatory

(PhysOrg.com) -- A supernova discovered yesterday is closer to Earth—approximately 21 million light-years away—than any other of its kind in a generation. Astronomers believe they caught the supernova within hours of its explosion, a rare feat made possible with a specialized survey telescope and state-of-the-art computational tools.

The finding of such a so early and so close has energized the astronomical community as they are scrambling to observe it with as many telescopes as possible, including the Hubble Space Telescope.

Joshua Bloom, assistant professor of astronomy at the University of California, Berkeley, called it "the supernova of a generation." Astronomers at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) and UC Berkeley, who made the discovery predict that it will be a target for research for the next decade, making it one of the most-studied supernova in history.

The supernova, dubbed PTF 11kly, occurred in the Pinwheel Galaxy, located in the "Big Dipper," otherwise known as the Ursa Major constellation. It was discovered by the Palomar Transient Factory (PTF) survey, which is designed to observe and uncover astronomical events as they happen.

"We caught this supernova very soon after explosion. PTF 11kly is getting brighter by the minute. It's already 20 times brighter than it was yesterday," said Peter Nugent, the senior scientist at Berkeley Lab who first spotted the supernova. Nugent is also an adjunct professor of astronomy at UC Berkeley. "Observing PTF 11kly unfold should be a wild ride. It is an instant cosmic classic."

He credits supercomputers at the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center (NERSC), a Department of Energy supercomputing center at Berkeley Lab, as well as high-speed networks with uncovering this rare event in the nick of time.

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The PTF survey uses a robotic telescope mounted on the 48-inch Samuel Oschin Telescope at Palomar Observatory in Southern California to scan the sky nightly. As soon as the observations are taken, the data travels more than 400 miles to NERSC via the National Science Foundation's High Performance Wireless Research and Education Network and DOE's Energy Sciences Network (ESnet). At NERSC, computers running machine learning algorithms in the Real-time Transient Detection Pipeline scan through the data and identify events to follow up on. Within hours of identifying PTF 11kly, this automated system sent the coordinates to telescopes around the world for follow-up observations.

Three hours after the automated PTF pipeline identified this supernova candidate, telescopes in the Canary Islands (Spain) had captured unique "light signatures," or spectra, of the event. Twelve hours later, his team had observed the event with a suite of telescopes including the Lick Observatory (California), and Keck Observatory (Hawaii) and determined the supernova belongs to a special category, called Type Ia. Nugent notes that this is the earliest spectrum ever taken of a Type Ia supernova.

"Type Ia supernova are the kind we use to measure the expansion of the Universe. Seeing one explode so close by allows us to study these events in unprecedented detail," said Mark Sullivan, the Oxford University team leader who was among the first to follow up on this detection.

"We still do not know for sure what causes such explosions," said Weidong Li, senior scientist at UC Berkeley and collaborator of Nugent. "We are using images from the Hubble Space Telescope, taken fortuitously years before an explosion to search for clues to the event's origin."

The team will be watching carefully over the next few weeks, and an urgent request to NASA yesterday means the Hubble Space Telescope will begin studying the supernova's chemistry and physics this weekend.

Catching supernovae so early allows a rare glimpse at the outer layers of the supernova, which contain hints about what kind of star exploded. "When you catch them this early, mixed in with the explosion you can actually see unburned bits from star that exploded! It is remarkable," said Andrew Howell of UC Santa Barbara/Las Cumbres Global Telescope Network. "We are finding new clues to solving the mystery of the origin of these supernovae that has perplexed us for 70 years. Despite looking at thousands of supernovae, I've never seen anything like this before."

"The ability to process all of this data in near real-time and share our results with collaborators around the globe through the Science Gateway at NERSC is an invaluable tool for following up on supernova events," says Nugent. "We wouldn't have been able to detect and observe this candidate as soon as we did without the resources at NERSC."

At a mere 21 million light-years from Earth, a relatively small distance by astronomical standards, the supernova is still getting brighter, and might even be visible with good binoculars in ten days' time, appearing brighter than any other supernova of its type in the last 30 years.

"The best time to see this exploding star will be just after evening twilight in the Northern hemisphere in a week or so," said Oxford's Sullivan. "You'll need dark skies and a good pair of binoculars, although a small telescope would be even better."

The scientists in the PTF have discovered more than 1,000 supernovae since it started operating in 2008, but they believe this could be their most significant discovery yet. The last time a supernova of this sort occurred so close was in 1986, but Nugent notes that this one was peculiar and heavily obscured by dust.

'"Before that, you'd have to go back to 1972, 1937 and 1572 to find more nearby Type Ia supernovae," says Nugent.

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Display comments: newest first

3 / 5 (2) Aug 25, 2011
sbd know how far away are other closest supernovas ?
4.4 / 5 (7) Aug 25, 2011
"Astronomers believe they caught the supernova within hours of its explosion"
You know... hours plus 21 million years.
1 / 5 (1) Aug 25, 2011
Great! This allows them to reevaluate their computer models and get more accurate predictions. I would love to see some of the data they have collected so far.
5 / 5 (5) Aug 25, 2011
Given M 101's relative proximity, this new SN really should be visible in 7x50 or 10x50 binos when it peaks soon (given dark, light-pollution free skies)! To get a idea of the immensity of this galaxy viewed from Earth, see this image taken by an amateur astronomer[Robert Gendler] using a 14 inch 'scope: http://www.robgen...icL.html

I'm sure this SN will be of great interest to pro astronomers as well, as its' relative proximity should allow a close-up look at a young SNRs growth, especially at x-ray, radio, near-IR, microwave and visible wavelengths. Hubble should be able to follow the expanding lightwave and shockwave and the precursor star should be rather easy to ID.

Really one of the closest visible SNe since SN 1987A in the LMC.
I'll be giving this one an eyeball with my modest 4.25" scope (binos too!), weather permitting.
1 / 5 (5) Aug 25, 2011
Congratulations to UC-Berkeley's Professor Joshua Bloom!

I anxiously look forward to new information from this event that might confirm or deny neutron repulsion [1] as the energy source:

1. www.neutronrepuls...hes.html

With kind regards,
Oliver K. Manuel
Former NASA Principal
Investigator for Apollo
1 / 5 (1) Aug 26, 2011
Great timing. Actual observation as opposed to theoretical bs. I know some enjoy the theory, I do as well, but reality must come first. This is great.
2.3 / 5 (3) Aug 26, 2011
whoa, this is awesome.
5 / 5 (2) Aug 26, 2011
Astronomer Phil Plait has some additional info on the SN along with an image of possible precursor star(s) taken by Hubble in 2002: http://blogs.disc...in-m101/

Additional info on PTF11kly can be found here (and refs therein): http://www.astron...ead=3585

I'd like to see a preliminary lightcurve of this putative Type SN1a up to now.
5 / 5 (2) Aug 26, 2011
I anxiously look forward to new information from this event that might confirm or deny neutron repulsion [1] as the energy source

Come on, Oliver. Don't you just mean "confirm"?
1 / 5 (5) Aug 27, 2011
Come on, Oliver. Don't you just mean "confirm"?

Yes, confirmation that would be fine.

But still pretending to be unaware of the information recorded in nuclear rest mass data and pointed out repeatedly in peer-reviewed papers over the past 10 years is not convincing science.
5 / 5 (2) Aug 27, 2011
"Yes, confirmation that would be fine."

"But still pretending to be unaware of the information recorded in nuclear rest mass data and pointed out repeatedly in peer-reviewed papers over the past 10 years is not convincing science."

I agree, confirmation would be fine. If just ONE independent researcher or research team could replicate your findings for NR OR that a pulsar sits at the center of our rigid-surfaced sun OR that supermassive neutron stars fragment to form galaxies, THAT would be a start. Better yet, numerous scientists all over the world corroborating any of your fantasies would be the scientific way to pursue your idle musings.

Instead, you ignore established peer-reviewed science as well as pertinent questions about your notions, and are nearly alone in your neutron fantasies, railing instead about imagined international conspiracies and lies and deceit by the entire scientific community all to discredit and ignore your "work".

That's not convincing science either.
1.5 / 5 (8) Aug 27, 2011
anyone here got a telescope attached to a live web feed so I can watch this star go bang?
5 / 5 (1) Aug 27, 2011
"anyone here got a telescope attached to a live web feed so I can watch this star go bang?"

Great question! Some sites like SLOOH ( http://www.slooh.com/ ) or possibly NASA may offer a live stream near the SN maximum, so check it out. Also, google around, as many amateurs are suitably equipped for streaming feeds of this bright supernova.

If you find any, please let us(me) know (...I'll do the same). :^)
1 / 5 (1) Oct 18, 2011
oliver, your post does contain a bit of truth, this part right here
"information recorded in nuclear rest mass data and pointed out repeatedly in peer-reviewed papers over the past 10 years is not convincing science."
so true, you have presented no convincing science in any of the papers you've self published in the last 10 years.

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