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The supernova that wasn't

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3:16pm, June 14, 2005

From Minneapolis, at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society

In 1954, astronomers witnessed the brilliant outburst of a star in a nearby galaxy. The discoverers dubbed the object Variable 12, but for decades it remained unclear whether the star had survived the eruption. Many researchers concluded that the outburst, which came to be known as supernova 1954J, had indeed demolished the star.

But some astronomers, notably Roberta M. Humphreys of the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, were not so quick to write off the star. They maintained that SN 1954J was a supernova imposter. It had undergone a violent phase that sometimes occurs in the evolution of a very massive star and that resembles a supernova explosion but leaves the star intact.

During the 1990s, Humphreys and her colleagues used a telescope at Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Ariz., to record a fuzzy, faint patch of light at the same position as Variable 12. They argued that it repres

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