Bad Astronomy

Supernova in spiral galaxy M100!

Brief update: I am on my way to give a talk in Michigan, so I may not be able to write an entry tonight. I know I won’t be able to write anything on Wednesday! I’ll be back Thursday with more BABlogging.

I just found out that there is a new supernova in the nearby spiral galaxy M100. You can see it in the image above, which was taken by John Chumack, a regular poster on the Bad Astronomy & Universe Today bulletin board (and who is a fine astrophotographer with an astonishing website full of his images).

Dubbed SN2006X (the 24th supernova seen so far this year), it’s way too faint to be seen by the unaided eye, but easily within reach of small telescopes. I’d have a shot seeing it in my 12 inch Dobsonian! Too bad the Moon is full; it’ll wash out fainter stars.

What does this mean? Well, a lot.

First, this type of supernova, or exploding star, is called a Type Ia. I give an explanation of this type of supernova and why they’re important in a previous blog entry. Basically, we need to study ones that are nearby, like 2006X, because it helps us understand ones we see at vast distances, which in turn are telling us how the Universe behaves on large scales.

Getting one this close is a fantastic opportunity. Even better, the supernova was caught two weeks before it gets to maximum brightness (it may not have reached it yet, in fact). This is a great boon to the science of supernovae. They usually take about two weeks to get bright, then fade away over months. Getting one before it reaches it peak can constrain a lot of the physical characteristics about the explosion, like its total power, which is critical for understanding how the explosion will evolve over time.

The host galaxy, M100, is a gorgeous face-on spiral, and since it’s nearby, it’s big and bright and easily seen in small telescopes. Also, this means there are zillions of pre-supernova images (including from Hubble, so the region around the supernova has been well-studied. Since it’s a Type Ia, the progenitor system it may be too faint to have been seen before, though (the star that blew up is called a white dwarf, and may be beyond Hubble’s power to see). Still, it would be interesting if it can be spotted in that Hubble image; it looks to me that the region of M100 with the supernova is covered by the image.

Over time, I imagine hundreds of astronomers will study this supernova, including a team that will use Hubble to reobserve that same spot. By tying the information we learn from 2006X to what’s known about very distance supernovae just like it, we may yet uncover and understand the fate of the Universe.

Until then, you can read more about this supernova and see lots more pictures of it at the Rochester Astronomy page.’