Nearest supernova of its type for 40 years

25 August 2011

Astronomers have discovered a bright, nearby supernova, otherwise known as an exploding star, and say it is the nearest of its type observed for 40 years.

The supernova was spotted in the Pinwheel Galaxy, M101, a spiral galaxy a mere 21 million light years away, lying in the famous constellation of the Great Bear (Ursa Major).

Scientists from the Department of Physics, University of Oxford made the discovery with their colleagues from the Palomar Transient Factory (PTF) collaboration, using a robotic telescope in California in the United States.

Oxford team leader, Dr Mark Sullivan, said: 'The most exciting thing is that this is what's known as a type 1a supernova – 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.'

The supernova, dubbed PTF11kly, is still getting brighter, and the team's best guess is that it might even be visible with good binoculars in ten days' time, appearing brighter than any other supernova of its type in the last 40 years.

Following the discovery, the team have triggered various follow-up observations around the globe. They hope to use NASA's Hubble Space Telescope to study the supernova's chemistry and physics, and the team will be watching carefully over the next few weeks as the supernova evolves.

The scientists in 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 1972.

The Palomar Transient Factory is a wide-field survey operated at the Palomar Observatory by the California Institute of Technology on behalf of a worldwide consortium of partner institutions. Collaborating institutions are Caltech, Columbia University, Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, UC Berkeley, University of Oxford, and the Weizmann Institute of Science (Israel).