Your chance to spot a supernova

Space fans are being asked to help discover exploding stars in distant galaxies, using their own home computers. Professional astronomers want them to check out photos taken from the world famous Palomar Observatory in California for signs of supernovae – stars that end their lives in a spectacular suicide.

Star trails over the dome at PalomarOxford scientists have a team standing by at the giant 4.2-meter William Herschel Telescope on La Palma in the Canary Islands to examine the best candidates found by the volunteers.

The two UK observers on La Palma began their part of the hunt on Wednesday night and went to bed yesterday morning having already bagged up to 16 of the cosmic explosions in one night.

The supernova hunt is the latest challenge being offered by the highly successful Galaxy Zoo project, based at Oxford University, and run by Chris Lintott, a co-presenter of the BBC’s The Sky At Night show. Here is how you can get involved in this exciting project.

The project’s legion of fans – called Zooites – have already amazed professional scientist by making major discoveries about the universe.

Last month, it was revealed that 250 strange blobs they had spotted resembling green peas were a previously unrecognised group of rare, small galaxies where stars are being born at an extremely high rate. And last year they discovered another new type of galaxy called red spirals.

Galaxy Zoo is working with images from an automatic sky survey called the Palomar Transient Factory. It watches for any sign of change in the heavens whether it is a variable star, a fast-moving asteroid, an active galaxy’s pulsating nucleus or a supernova.

The telescope, basically a 48-inch, fast Schmidt camera, takes a snap of the same galaxies twice a night every five nights. Volunteers will check through images taken to look for bright spots that mark supernovae – a supernova gets so bright that it can outshine all the other millions of stars in a galaxy put together.

• 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.

Paul Sutherland

Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.
Paul Sutherland

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Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.

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