An amateur astronomer caught a supernova explosion on camera

The Argentine stargazer captured the star's death in series of nearly 100 images

exploding supernova

RIGHT PLACE, RIGHT TIME  In September 2016, an amateur astronomer was looking at spiral galaxy NGC 613 (shown), located about 65 million light-years away in the constellation Sculptor, and caught a supernova exploding.

Smartt/Queen’s University Belfast, NASA, Hubble/ESA, Robert Gendler

An amateur astronomer caught a supernova on camera during the explosion’s earliest moments, giving physicists a glimpse of a long-sought phase of stellar death.

Víctor Buso spotted the supernova from his rooftop observatory in Rosario, Argentina, on September 20, 2016, when he aimed his telescope straight overhead at spiral galaxy NGC 613 to test a new camera. To avoid letting in too much light from the city sky — Rosario is a city of about 1.2 million people — he took a series of about 100 images that were each exposed for 20 seconds, spanning about an hour and a half.

Over the last half-hour of Buso’s observations, the supernova appeared and then doubled in brightness. In 2013, astronomers spotted a supernova within hours of its explosion (SN Online: 2/13/17), but this is one of the first to be spotted before it exploded.

Because there is no way to predict when and where a supernova will go off, this sort of observation is extremely rare, says astrophysicist Melina Bersten of the National University of La Plata in Argentina, who reports details of the supernova in the Feb. 22 Nature.

NOW YOU SEE IT The black spot toward the bottom right of this image is a supernova going off near galaxy NGC 613. An amateur astronomer in Argentina captured the explosion in nearly 100 images taken with a complementary metal-oxide semiconductor camera. Víctor Buso and Gastón Folatelli

“This is completely unusual, and was something that many people were searching for around the world without success,” Bersten says. “It was incredible.”

Bersten and her colleagues analyzed the light from the supernova and found that it matches models of the first phase of a supernova called the shock breakout phase, in which a shock wave from a massive star’s collapse ricochets back from the star’s core and pushes stellar material outward.

Lisa Grossman is the astronomy writer. She has a degree in astronomy from Cornell University and a graduate certificate in science writing from University of California, Santa Cruz. She lives near Boston.

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