Jimmy Westlake: Supernova explodes in neighbor galaxy | SteamboatToday.com

Jimmy Westlake: Supernova explodes in neighbor galaxy

Jimmy Westlake

— A type Ia supernova is nature's biggest explosion, bright enough to be seen all the way across the universe. If one erupted nearby, it could wipe out life on Earth. Fortunately, they are very rare events within a galaxy like ours. The last one seen visually in our galaxy was Kepler's Supernova in the year 1604.

It is estimated that a supernova explodes in the Milky Way about every 50 years, on average, but most are hidden from our view by the immense clouds of dust and gas that clog the spiral arms of the Milky Way where we live.

Historically, supernovae have been observed from Earth about once every three centuries. We are long overdue for another one, statistically speaking. Astronomers who study the violent deaths of stars must look to other nearby galaxies to have a reasonable chance of seeing and studying one. That's why the appearance of a type Ia supernova in a nearby galaxy last week has created such excitement in the astronomical community.

A type Ia supernova is the result of a white dwarf star, teetering on the edge of gravitational collapse, sucking up matter from an orbiting companion star and going over the brink. It becomes a carbon fusion bomb, with a core mass nearly 1.5 times that of our sun. The raw energy generated by one such blast, if harnessed, could supply the current U.S. annual energy needs for a trillion trillion years!

About 12 million years ago, a white dwarf star detonated in a neighboring galaxy called M82, about 12 million light years from Earth. Last week, the light from this ancient explosion finally reached us.

The explosion is growing brighter daily and is expected to continue brightening for another week or so. It is not expected to reach the threshold of naked-eye visibility but should be detectable by modest backyard telescopes, a rare event for astronomy enthusiasts.

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Supernova 2014J, as it is called, is the closest and brightest supernova visible in a neighboring galaxy since 1993. Its host galaxy, M82, is located near the bowl of the Big Dipper.

If you have never seen a supernova with your own eyes — and very few people ever have — but would like to give it a try, the students of the Colorado Mountain College SKY Club would like to offer you that opportunity. It just so happens that the appearance of this historically significant supernova coincides with the opening of the SKY Club's inaugural "Crystal Observatory" event on the Steamboat Springs Colorado Mountain College Campus.

The Crystal Observatory is a structure built by growing icicles in the cold night air, surrounding a telescope, through which visitors can observe the supernova and other celestial wonders.

The Crystal Observatory will be open for public viewing from 7 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, weather permitting, and again on Feb. 6 to 9 during the same time. Admission is $10. Children younger than 6 and current CMC students are admitted free.

In addition to supernova 2014J, guests can view our own moon up close, the planet Jupiter and its giant moons, the Great Orion Nebula, the Pleiades star cluster and more. Proceeds from the Crystal Observatory event go to support the astronomy activities of the SKY Club.

For more information, call SKY Club adviser Jimmy Westlake at 970-870-4537.

Hope to see you and your family there.

Professor Jimmy Westlake teaches astronomy and physics at Colorado Mountain College’s Alpine Campus. His “Celestial News” column appears weekly in the Steamboat Today newspaper and his “Cosmic Moment” radio spots can be heard on local radio station KFMU. Check out "Jimmy's 2014 Cosmic Calendar" of sky events on his website at http://www.jwestlake.com. It features twelve of his best astrophotographs and a day-by day listing of cool celestial events that you and your family can enjoy watching in 2014. Proceeds from the sale of Cosmic Calendars help to support the CMC SKY Club.

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