Students in England chance upon an exploding star

The newly discovered supernova looks like a cigar and is one of the closest supernovae discovered in decades.

By Ananth Baliga
The newly discovered supernova has been named SN 2014J and is cigar-shaped. (Credit:ULO)
1 of 2 | The newly discovered supernova has been named SN 2014J and is cigar-shaped. (Credit:ULO)

Students at the University College of London happened to chance upon a supernova 12 million light-years away in Messier 82, while attending a telescope workshop.

The International Astronomical Union’s Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams, an organization that catalogues supernovae, says spectral analysis suggests it is a Type 1a supernova, created by a white dwarf star pulling matter off a larger neighboring star until the entire system becomes unstable and explodes.


Dr. Steve Fossey, a professor at the University College of London, was conducting a workshop for an automated telescope, when the skies started to get cloudy. The students chose to observe Messier 82 as it was in one of the few clear patches of sky. As Fossey was adjusting the telescope he happened to see a star-like object and did not recognize it from previous observations.

"We pointed the telescope at Messier 82 -- it's quite a bright galaxy, quite photogenic. But as soon as it came up on screen, it didn't look right to me," Dr. Fossey told BBC News. "We fired up another telescope, we got another frame -- and that was when we knew it was a supernova."


On checking the archives, they realized that they had discovered a new star-like object. Fossey then rushed to file an official report and sent it to the International Astronomical Union, which confirmed that Fossey and his students were the first to discover the supernova, now called SN 2014J.

“It was a surreal and exciting experience taking images of the unidentified object as Steve ran around the observatory verifying the result. I’m very chuffed to have helped in the discovery of the M 82 Supernova,“ said Guy Pollack, one of Fossey's students.

The cigar-shaped galaxy is 12 million light-years away and is the closest supernova to be spotted since the 1980s. Scientists say the supernova could be even brighter in the coming weeks.

[BBC] [University College of London] [International Astronomical Union]

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