Daylight supernova marked royal birth

With Prince William’s wedding to Kate Middleton just days away, astronomers were today told of another royal spectacle – in the sky. A brilliant supernova, visible in broad daylight, marked the birth of King Charles II on May 29, 1630, a conference heard.

A NASA image of Cassiopeia A combining observations made with the Spitzer, Hubble and Chandra space telescopes.
A NASA image of Cassiopeia A combining observations made with the Spitzer, Hubble and Chandra space telescopes.

References to the exploding star were discovered by a scientist and a historian working together.

Their detective work may have solved a long-standing astronomical riddle of a 17th Century supernova that seemed to have gone unnoticed at the time.

An expanding shell of gas from the blast, 11,000 light-years away and known as Cassiopeia A, was first noticed by radio astronomers in 1947. Later observations made with the Hubble space telescope suggest it would have exploded in the latter part of the 17th century, producing enough dust to make 10,000 planets the size of Earth. But astronomers were puzzled that they had previously seen no record of such a huge explosion in our galaxy.

Martin Lunn, former curator of astronomy at the Yorkshire Museum, York, got together with historian Dr Lila Rakoczy, from Texas, to examine the mystery. They found their answer in a book of verse, Britanniae Natalis, written in 1630 largely in Latin by the intellectuals of the day at Oxford.

The space history detectives presented their findings at the Royal Astronomical Society’s National Astronomy Meeting in Llandudno, Wales.

Mr Lunn told Skymania News: “Essentially the mystery is that in the 17th century a supernova occurred and there have been no reliable accurate observations of it until now.

“We know it occurred because remnants from it were discovered with radio telescopes way back in 1947 and astronomers were able to work out from observing it when the light from the explosion should have reached us. And all their estimates suggested it would have been seen in about 1670.

“We’ve undertaken some observations and investigations which suggest that the light actually arrived at the Earth in 1630, the year when Charles II was born.

“We’ve ruled out that it might have been Venus, a comet, meteor or a sundog. What we need to do now is more research to find more sources. We do expect some prejudice because this is not a pure astronomy approach, this is science-history approach, to a scientific issue. Cassiopeia A is one of the heaviest studied objects in our galaxy.”

Dr Rakoczy said: “Accounts from the 1660s are full of references to a noonday star appearing at Charles’s birth 30 years earlier. The problem with that is that the 1640s and 50s were a pretty contentious time with much political and religious upheaval and the English Civil war. By the time that Charles II returned to the throne in 1660 with the Restoration, it was a very huge time for propaganda. So a lot of those tracts that appeared were currying favour with the new king. ”

“My job was to try to get as far back as I could to find if there were any contemporary sources that would corroborate the supernova. My eureka moment was finding a 1630 source, Brittania Nautilus, produced in 1630, mostly in Latin with a handful of Greek and French poems.

“The authors are 137 academics associated with Oxford University. These were the cream of British intelligentsia of the day that crossed all kinds of disciplines – mathematicians, physicians, lawyers, astronomers even.”

One puzzle for astronomers is that a brilliant supernova in Cassiopeia would also have been visible at night from Europe because the constellation remains always above the horizon. None was recorded, but Mr Lunn believe this could simply be because skies were overcast at night while the supernova was bright.

Dr Rakoczy dismisses suggestions that the noonday star might have been an imaginary event.

She said: “There is so much good strong evidence in the poems that suggests this was a real phenomenon. For example they also reference other known astronomical events, such as an eclipse that occurred shortly after Charles was born and a comet seen in 1618 which they called James’s Star. If these poems are so full of known astronomical references, why then should we suddenly suggest they are making up the noonday star?”

Examples from the verses include:

Oxford scholar Richard Fog wrote: “An unfamiliar light in the sky. A star, now neighbour to the travelling sun, shines with a bold light . . . its noble light leads all lands to the feet of the young prince.”

Aristocrat Georg Zouch wrote: “At midday a star shines for you, a great torch and equal to the Sun.”

Thomas Peyton, of Magdalen College, Oxford, wrote: “At your birth a new star has painted the vault of heaven… At your birth, the golden day was soon overcome by a brilliant light.”

And Robertus Antrobus, of Magdalen College wrote: “The royal baby shines and illuminates the day.”

• 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. Check out our monthly sky guide too!
©PAUL SUTHERLAND, Skymania.com

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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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