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Amateur spots new supernova and, this weekend, you can too

Posted May 15
Updated May 16

Supernova AT 2017 eaw is located near the constellation Cygnus in the northwestern sky (Image: Stellarium)

A "new" supernova has been discovered by an amateur astronomer. The discovery came as Patrick Wiggins compared images of the galaxy taken from his telescope near Salt Lake City, Utah on May 12 with those taken early May 14. The discovery has been confirmed by additional observations worldwide.

Supernovae mark the end of a star's life with a tremendous explosion, the result of runaway internal nuclear reactions. Based on analysis of the light emitted, Wiggins' discovery was determined to be a Type-IIP supernova which occurs in stars ten or more times larger than our own. Light from this supernova took 22 million years to reach Earth.

While supernovae are rare in our own galaxy – occurring about once per century – this is the tenth one discovered in the last 100 years in NGC 6946, also known as the Fireworks Galaxy.

Fireworks Galaxy

Forecasted to reach maximum brightness by this weekend, the supernova will dim slightly as it cools. Unlike other types, which disappear more quickly, type II-P supernovae tend to plateau in brightness for around 100 days following the initial burst as hydrogen from the exploded star recombines creating an envelope around the dying star.

Supernovae are usually discovered by professional astronomers in sky surveys, but Wiggins is not your typical amateur.

He normally sleeps from dawn to 2 p.m. and then studies the sky from his home observatory or the Salt Lake Astronomical Society's collection of telescopes nestled between a skateboard park and baseball diamonds of the Stansbury Park suburb. That persistence has paid off. This is his third supernova discovery.

Following a career in the Air Force, Wiggins shared the night sky over 26 years working at Salt Lake City's Hansen Planetarium and on local TV and radio with his astronomy reports. After retiring from the planetarium, he continues to provide science outreach throughout the state through the University of Utah Physics department. Wiggins also volunteers as a part of the NASA Ambassador program where his yearly average of 88 public events earned him the NASA Distinguished Public Service Medal in 2014.

Professional and amateur astronomers will be keeping a close watch on this supernova this week as it brightens. Initially, the supernova was measured at 12.6, too dim for the naked eye but within reach of moderate-sized amateur telescopes.


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