Watching Stars Explode

Article Contributed by
Walt Pickut
Board of Directors, MMMAA

Sky watchers at the Martz Observatory in Frewsburg, New York, at observatories around the world and on several NASA spacecraft, were treated to two rare space events recently; two stars exploded in our celestial neighborhood. Close, of course, is relative.

One of the blasts, discovered about a week after its explosion on January 21, 2014 by students at the University of London Observatory, was only about 12 million light-years away in the M82 Galaxy, also known as the Cigar Galaxy. This makes it the nearest type-Ia supernova in decades. The unromantic name of the star that blew up is SN 2014J.

A supernova is one of the most violent events in the universe. If our Sun were to blow itself up in such an explosion Earth and the rest of our solar system would be incinerated by a fiery shock wave screaming outward at 20,000 miles every second with no hope of escape. Fortunately, that can’t happen until our Sun reaches old age in about 4 ½ billion years as a white dwarf star and, even then, only if it crashes into or gobbles up another star.

Observers at The Martz Observatory have joined with other observatories and NASA spacecraft in photographing the explosion of SN 2014J. It is still brightening as the blast wave expands into space and will soon be visible in the Constellation Ursa Major to back yard star gazers with ordinary binoculars.
The other supernova that brightened Earth’s celestial neighborhood is only 21 million light-years away in the Pinwheel Galaxy. It was first spotted only 11 hours after it exploded on August 23, 2011 at about 4:30 p.m. Universal Time. Its name is SN2011fe.

The apparent brightness of a supernova helps determine its distance. The Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded in December, 2013 to three astronomers for their “discovery of the accelerating expansion of the Universe through observations of distant supernovae.”

Astronomy is one of the few sciences in which students and amateurs have as much to contribute as professionals. Some of the most important discoveries have been made by backyard stargazers and volunteer staffed observatories like Martz.

The newest project at the Martz Observatory is making its telescopes available by remote robotic control to classrooms in schools throughout Chautauqua County. Martz plans to engage local students in significant research in the astronomical sciences. The Martz Observatory will soon be at the forefront of STEM education in the region’s school systems.

News from the Marshal Martz Observatory and the universe beyond our skies is brought to our readers every month by Hall & Laury Optical at 707 Fairmount Ave Ste 10 Jamestown NY, the quality local source for the latest in fashion and highest of quality in glasses and optical aids of every kind, including repairs.