By the light of a starry eruption

It was probably the brightest stellar event witnessed in recorded history. On May 1, 1006, a star made its debut in the southern sky and awed observers for months.

Astronomers long ago concluded that the display was generated by a supernova, the explosion of a massive star. But the brightness of that explosion has been uncertain. Until now.

Using telescopes at two observatories in Chile, researchers recently identified a faint shell of glowing hydrogen gas surrounding the explosion site. The shell was produced as the cataclysm’s shock wave raced outward, sweeping up and setting aglow gas from the surrounding medium.

P. Frank Winkler of Middlebury College in Vermont and his colleagues set out to measure the exact distance to the supernova, because from that measurement they could calculate how bright the explosion appeared in 1006. To get the distance, the group first measured how much the shell appears to have expanded during 11 years of observations. They also measured the speed of the shock wave. With these data, the team determined that the shell lies 7,100 light-years from Earth.

Winkler’s team then adopted the common assumption that the supernova belongs to a class, dubbed 1A, that has a special property: All of its members have about the same luminosity, like light bulbs of similar wattage. Knowing the supernova’s distance and its luminosity, “we can calculate… just how bright the [explosion] must have appeared to 11th-century astronomers,” Winkler says. In the March 1 Astrophysical Journal, his team reports that the supernova appeared about halfway between the brightness of Venus and that of the full moon.

Says Winkler, “People could probably have read manuscripts at midnight by its light.”


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