Supernova flares in Whirlpool Galaxy

Telescopes around the world are turning towards a bright supernova that has flared in one of the most famous galaxies in the heavens, M51 in the constellation of Canes Venatici, the Hunting Dogs.

Supernova imaged by Gain Lee with the Faulkes Telescope
Supernova imaged by Gain Lee with the Faulkes Telescope

Though I say bright, this is in relative terms because you would need a telescope to locate it. But amateur astronomers equipped with today’s sensitive cameras should be able to record it fairly easily.

M51 – the 51st item in Charles Messier’s famous catalogue of fuzzy objects – is known as the Whirlpool Galaxy and has a special place in cosmological history. That is because it was the first to be identified as having a spiral pattern,an observation made by Lord Rosse with his mighty 72-inch telescope at Birr Castle in Ireland in 1845.

However, at this time it was still not recognised that such objects were separate galaxies far beyond our own Milky Way in a wider universe rather than gas clouds or star clusters within it. M51 is now known to be around 23 million light-years away from us.

The supernova, currently around magnitude 14, was apparently discovered by French amateur astronomer Stéphane Lamott, whose images appear in this forum. The Google translation into English can be found here. An independent discovery was made by one of the new automatic sky surveys, the Palomar Transient Factory, which has subsequently appealed for any amateur images of the galaxy taken in the days before and during the outburst.

Our updated image with this post was taken by Gain Lee, an amateur astronomer from Huddersfield, England, using a Faulkes Telescope Project robotic instrument over the internet. The supernova is marked on the photo – click it to enlarge. See details and more or Gain’s images at his website.

Another image was taken by Pete Lawrence, of Selsey, England, who is a regular on the BBC’s The Sky at Night.

The supernova is thought to be a Type II where a massive star has burned up all its hydrogen and the core collapses, causing a catastrophic explosion. The discovery comes six years since the last supernova in M51 was discovered by German amateur astronomer Wolfgang Kloehr in June 2005.

A supernova in another bright and relatively nearby galaxy, M82, apparently went unnoticed recently because it happened behind dense dust.

Reporter: Paul Sutherland

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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.

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