UC Scientists Discover Youngest Type of Supernova

UC Berkeley Astronomer Joshua Bloom said that there has not been a supernova this close in over thirty years. He called it the “supernova of a generation” in an interview on Sept. 13 for NBC San Diego.
UCSD’s High-Performance Wireless and Research Education Network used technology in the San Diego Supercomputer Center to transfer high-volume data in real time to facilities miles away.

The technology helped researchers at the San Diego Palomar Observatory discover the supernova’s coordinates early, giving observation access to hundreds of amateur astronomers. They used a Palomar 48-inch Oschin Schmidt telescope from the observatory to digitally survey a large portion of the sky every night.

HPWREN Director Hans-Werner Braun said the HPWREN was a piece of cyberinfrastructure that was essential for the discovery of the supernova. Braun stressed that the discovery was a collaborative process — astronomers from UC Berkeley were also involved.

“The key were people, particularly researchers who make things happen,” Braun said in an email. “They are stronger and far more effective when they utilize key technologies.”

The scientist who first noted the supernova was Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory Staff Scientist Peter Nugent. Nugent runs a subtraction of the Palomar Transient Factory at the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory. Part of his job is to search for potential supernova candidates in the laboratory’s database based on pictures from the telescope. His search for the best candidate in a known nearby galaxy yielded a supernova in the Pinwheel galaxy.

Nugent then asked Oxford Astrophysics Member Mark Sullivan for a spectrum – the different colors of light that come from a star – of the supernova’s components. The spectrum would allow them to scatter the light and determine the elements in the atmosphere of the supernova. That was when they realized they were dealing with a type 1a supernova — a white dwarf star’s thermonuclear explosion. Not only is it rare to find a supernova in this young stage — this is actually the youngest type 1a supernova ever seen.

The reality of Nugent’s discovery has not yet hit him.
 
“For now I think the very best part about it is how I have been able to show my family this discovery in our little telescope,” Nugent said in an email. “This has been very cool.”
Due to the technology used at the San Diego Computer Center, thousands of people have been able to look at the supernova.

“It’s well within the reach of ordinary [people] which makes it quite special,” Bloom said. “This is the kind of supernova that people who study supernovas on a regular basis are all they get basically once in a lifetime.”

Supernovas help scientists understand how some stars die. Scientists can use their brightness to measure distance in astronomy and discover more information about the star, including the temperature and elements in the atmosphere. The supernova that is currently being studied is a rare opportunity in the world of astronomy. Bloom said that nearby supernovas allow scientists to study their “exquisite details.”

“Observing the [supernova] unfold should be a wild ride,” Nugent said in a statement released to NBC San Diego Sept. 13. “It is an instant cosmic classic.”

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