8:28am

Thu September 8, 2011
The Two-Way

Look Up! It's A Star In The Midst Of A Violent, Bright Death

Something violent is going on the night sky, right now. And scientists studying the phenomenon said yesterday that with a pair good binoculars or a telescope you can see a star in its final throes causing a spectacular explosion called a supernova.

Even though the star is 21 million light years away from Earth, the explosion is the closest and brightest astronomers have found in decades. Today will be its brightest night.

Reuters reports:

The discovery, announced on Wednesday, was made in what was believed to be the first hours of the rare cosmic explosion using a special telescope at the Palomar Observatory near San Diego and powerful supercomputers at a government laboratory in Berkeley.

The detection so early of a supernova so near has created a worldwide stir among astronomers, who are clamoring to observe it with every telescope at their disposal, including the giant Hubble Space Telescope.

The star is located in the Pinwheel Galaxy, and you can spot it, weather permitting, above the Big Dipper. USA Today says the best time to catch it is just after sunset, before the moon brightens the sky.

The paper also explains a bit of the science behind what's going on:

The supernova belongs to the widely observed "Type 1a" group, born from runaway thermonuclear combustion in an ancient "white dwarf" star, the burned-out stub of a normal star that attains a weight 1.38 times heavier than the sun, then blasts itself apart. Type 1a blasts are 10 to 50 times brighter than other supernovas, and the light from the single exploding star is brighter than the light from an entire galaxy.

If such a blast had occurred in our own Milky Way galaxy, the light would probably be visible during the daytime. "In some senses, this is the largest, nearest thermonuclear explosion we can see," [astronomer Peter Nugent of the Energy Department's Lawrence Berkeley (Calif.) National Laboratory] says.

Reuters put together a video with an animation of what's going on:

The BBC spoke to Mark Sullivan, the leader of the team that made the discovery. He points out the last time they saw an explosion like this was in 1972 and before that in 1937 and 1898.

"Whilst it looks more or less like just another bright star, unlike its companions this supernova will soon fade away, and after a few days it will only be visible with larger telescopes," Sullivan told the BBC.

Update at 10:23 a.m. ET. How To Watch:

The Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory has put together this video on how to spot the supernova using binoculars:

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.