Champagne supernova for Tom

A British amateur astronomer has broken a 36-year-old record for the number of exploding stars discovered by one person. Retired telecoms engineer Tom Boles, of Coddenham, Suffolk, has photographed and identified 125 supernovae erupting in distant galaxies from his private observatory.

Supernova discoverd by Tom BolesThe previous record was held by a professional scientist, Bulgarian-born Professor Fritz Zwicky, who studied the size and age of the universe at the California Insitute of Technology. He found 121 of the suicidal stars before his death in 1974.

Tom, 65, a former president of the British Astronomical Association, operates three computer-controlled telescopes from his countryside site which is unhampered by light pollution. He has been searching for supernovae since 1996 and monitors 12,000 galaxies, working every clear night.

Tom told Skymania News: I hadn’t really appreciated the significance of the achievement when it happened. I was aware of Zwicky’s tally but not that it held any other significance than that it was the achievement of a great man. He died a year after his final discovery. Had he lived longer his tally would no doubt have been much greater.

“The greater part of my achievement comes from the fact that it was done from the UK with its poor, damp, irregular and difficult to predict weather conditions.

“Also, unlike the larger professional efforts of Zwicky, the funding for the effort was entirely private. Around half a million images have been taken to make the discoveries and so accruing over 300,000 hours observing time.”

Supernova discoveries are important to professional astronomers because Type IA blasts can help give precise distances for galaxies and so help to determine the size of the universe. They have been detected by professionals as far away as 11 billion light-years. You can read more about Tom’s observatory and equipment here.

Skymania News told last night of a new Galaxy Zoo project to allow computer users to detect supernovae even if they haven’t got a telescope!

Picture: This CCD photo by Tom Boles reevals one of the supernovae he found this year, SN2009es in the galaxy IC 1525. It was discovered at magnitude 17.7 on May 24. (Credit: Tom Boles).

• Discover space for yourself and do fun science with a telescope. Here is Skymania’s advice on how to choose a telescope. We also have a guide to the different types of telescope available.

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By Paul Sutherland

Paul Sutherland has been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. He writes regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy, plus he has authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.

2 thoughts on “Champagne supernova for Tom

  • 09/04/2009 at 7:36 pm

    Fritz Zwicky conducted a successful systematic search for Supernovae without the the help of computer-guided telescopes, a million photographs, or modern supercomputers skilled at detecting Supernovae. His work was not a part of a larger professional effort, but rather was the sole and difficult effort by a lone astronomer. I watched him observe plate after photographic plate with an eagle eye for the tiny evidence of a Supernova. It was tedious and laborious work that took hours and hours, and required Herculean effort. I personally find little professional accomplishment in any tally exceeding Fritz Zwicky's that benefitted from major modern advantages that he could not avail himself of at that time.

  • 09/04/2009 at 7:40 pm

    No one would deny Zwicky's remarkable achievement, least of all Tom as he made clear in his own comment. But it would be churlish not to recognize Tom's own dedication as an amateur in dedicating night after night to his own search.

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