UPDATE THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 8, 2011 The moon is now waxing toward full. It’ll be the northern hemisphere’s Harvest Moon, one of the most beloved full moons of the year – but not beloved by supernova watchers, since its light will drown faint stars – and the galaxy containing Supernova 2011fe – from view.
And be sure of this. By ordinary standards, this supernova is also very faint. And yet, according to AstroBob, it is the 6th brightest supernova ever seen outside the Milky Way system. Both Bob and Skyandtelescope.com agree that Supernova 2011fe might have peaked in brightness around September 5 at magnitude 10.2. That means it has never been bright enough to see with the eye – and it is even too faint to see with ordinary binoculars.
Your best bet for seeing the supernova is to find an astronomy club near you! Notice the NASA Night Sky Network widget on the right side of this page. Maybe it can help you find a “star party,” where experienced observers with telescopes can point out M101 – the galaxy in which the supernova resides. How will you know which star is the supernova? At this point, to see the supernova, you need an experienced amateur astronomer with a telescope to help you. If you do locate a club in your area, call them to find out if they’re holding impromptu supernova viewings this month.
UPDATE SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 4, 2011. Despite the video at the bottom of this post, in which an astronomer says the supernova can be seen in “decent-sized” binoculars, experts are now saying the supernova will be around 10th magnitude in brightness. That is very faint. You will need a very large pair of binoculars (AstroBob says to try 80mm binoculars) – mounted on a tripod – to see a 10th magnitude object. You could also use nearly any small telescope. With the moon waxing in the evening sky, casting more and more of its light into the sky and drowning fainter stars, tonight might be your last good chance to see this, assuming you have enough optical aid.
FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 3, 2011 On the weekend of September 3-4, 2011 – if you live in the northern hemisphere, and if you have patience and a good pair of binoculars – you’ll have an opportunity to witness what the ancients might have thought was a “new” star – a star that pops into view suddenly where no star was before. We today know it as an exploding star, or supernova.
Astronomers believe it might become the brightest Type 1a supernova of the last 30 years.
1. Which way do I look? The supernova – called Supernova 2011fe by astronomers – is located near the familiar Big Dipper pattern in our skies. At this time of year, the Big Dipper can be found in the northwestern sky in the hours after sunset.
2. What time of night? Don’t wait too late at night, or the Big Dipper will have set below your northwestern horizon.
3. How do I recognize the Big Dipper? The Big Dipper consists of seven fairly bright stars in a dipper pattern. Notice that the Dipper has two parts – a bowl and a handle.
4. How do I find the supernova in the Big Dipper? You want to be looking at the last two stars in the handle of the Dipper. These stars are Mizar and Alkaid. Pretend you are drawing an equilateral, or even-sided, triangle on the sky, using Mizar and Alkaid to mark two points of the triangle. The supernova will be located at the third point of your imaginary triangle.
5. Can I see the supernova with the eye alone? No. No one knows exactly how bright the supernova will get, but you’ll need binoculars or a small telescope to see it.
6. What will the supernova look like? The supernova will be seen in our sky superimposed on the Pinwheel Galaxy (M101). The supernova resides inside this galaxy. That’s why the chart above shows the site of the supernova as fuzzy. The galaxy is fuzzy. The supernova will look just like a star, like a pinpoint of light. The sky experts at Skyandtelescope.com say you’ll probably use the supernova to find the galaxy – not the galaxy to find the supernova. If your sky isn’t dark enough, both supernova and galaxy will be tough to spot.
UPDATE 7. Can I see the supernova with binoculars? The supernova will probably be no brighter than 10th magnitude. The video below says you will need a “decent-sized” pair of binoculars, but, in fact, you probably will need a strong pair of binoculars, mounted on a tripod to keep them from shaking as you aim them toward the supernova. How large? A lot depends on your sky conditions. Use the largest ones you have, say, 80mm or larger.
8. Can I use my telescope to see the supernova? Yes. Skyandtelescope.com says the supernova should be within the limits for a 4-inch or larger ‘scope.
9. Will I see the Pinwheel Galaxy behind the supernova? If you are looking in a very dark sky, you might see a wispy patch behind the supernova. That’s the galaxy! You’ll need a small telescope to see the galaxy well.
10. Can I see the supernova from my backyard? Maybe. A tip from veteran skywatchers: pack up a picnic supper, grab the family and head out to the country to see the supernova. State parks are a great place to set up. You’ll have a much better chance of seeing it, and you’ll enjoy the view so much more.
Astronomers say the supernova will remain visible with binoculars in our sky for about a week to 10 days – say, the first 10 days of September. Are they right? Only time will tell.
Scientists at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) and the University of California, Berkeley caught this supernova just hours after its explosion, a rare feat made possible with an automatic survey telescope and state-of-the-art computational tools. The brightness of this Type 1a supernova has been steadily increasing since the telescope first caught sight of it on August 24, 2011. Berkeley Lab’s Peter Nugent explains more in the video below.
This supernova is a mere 21 million light-years away from Earth, a relatively small distance by astronomical standards. It actually exploded 21 million years ago. The light from the explosion took 21 million years to reach Earth.
One last thing – that old bugaboo – the moon. The moon is waxing now, getting brighter, casting more light in the sky and obscuring fainter stars. How long will you be able to see the supernova in the light of the moon? It depends on how bright it gets. Again, no one really knows for sure how bright the supernova will become – although astronomers have a pretty good idea, based on the behavior of other objects of this type. Best to look for it as soon as possible, though, before the moon gets too bright.
So … check it out! And have fun. Let us know if you see it.
Bottom line: By September 8, 2011 Supernova 2011fe had become too faint for casual observers to find, but experienced amateur astronomers – with telescopes – can still see it. Best bet for seeing it is to find a “star party” in your area. To find one, notice the NASA Night Sky Network widget on the right side of EarthSky’s Tonight page. Even if you don’t see the supernova, you’ll have fun and enjoy standing out under the night sky.
Deborah Byrd created the EarthSky radio series in 1991 and EarthSky.org in 1994. Today, she serves as Editor-in-Chief of this website. She has won a galaxy of awards from the broadcasting and science communities, including having an asteroid named 3505 Byrd in her honor. A science communicator and educator since 1976, Byrd believes in science as a force for good in the world and a vital tool for the 21st century. "Being an EarthSky editor is like hosting a big global party for cool nature-lovers," she says.