Amateur astronomers are capturing the first images of the supernova, or exploding star, in the famous galaxy Messier 82 (M82), which appears along our line of sight to the famous Big Dipper asterism. The first to recognize the supernova, it seems, was a team of students at the University College London Observatory, inside the London city limits, on January 21, 2014 (view press release). It is bright enough to be visible in small telescopes, and it’s apparently still getting brighter. It’s well placed for viewing in the evening hours.
M82 is a near neighbor in our vast universe of galaxies. This is the closest supernova in years, at 11 or 12 million light-years away. Hopefully, it goes without saying that there is no danger. Members of the EarthSky community captured the images below. Enjoy thinking about this vast explosion in space, which actually happened millions of years ago. We are only now seeing its light.
Some are saying this is the nearest supernova since Supernova 1987A in the Large Magellanic Cloud. However, there was another supernova, Supernova 1993J, in M81 some 20 years ago. The supernova’s preliminary designation is PSN (Preliminary Supernova) J09554214+6940260. Expect a better name soon! Skyandtelescope.com reports:
A spectrum reported by Yi Cao and colleagues (Caltech) suggests that the supernova may still be two weeks away from reaching its peak brightness. The spectrum shows it to be a Type Ia supernova — an exploded white dwarf — with debris expanding at 20,000 kilometers per second. It is reddened, and hence must also be dimmed, by dust in M82 along our line of sight.
You need a telescope to see the supernova, so check with your local science or astronomy club. Some may be having impromptu star parties in its honor. M82 is well up in the northeastern sky by 7 or 8 p.m. (for observers at mid-northern latitudes). The waning gibbous moon doesn’t rise until much later.