Found! Seven Dwarfs Surround The ‘Pinwheel Galaxy’ Field Of View

Using a unique type of telescope that includes long-range lenses, astronomers at Yale University have found seven dwarf galaxies surrounding the well-known Pinwheel Galaxy, M101.

It’s unclear if the septuplets are actually orbiting the pinwheel, or just happen to be in the same field of view. But astronomers at Yale say that this shows the so-called Dragonfly Telephoto Array is working well, and they are planning follow-up observations to see what else they can find.

“The previously unseen galaxies may yield important insights into dark matter and galaxy evolution, while possibly signaling the discovery of a new class of objects in space,” Yale University stated in a release.

The galaxies escaped detection before because their light is so diffuse, but this is what the telescope is designed to pick up. The telescope is constructed of eight telephoto lenses (similar to what you would use to photograph a sporting event) that include “special coating” to stop any light from scattering inside. The telescope is called “Dragonfly” because like an insect, it has multiple eyes for looking at things.

The Dragonfly Telephoto Array, a unique Yale University telescope used to look for diffuse light in galaxies. Credit: Yale University
The Dragonfly Telephoto Array, a unique Yale University telescope used to look for diffuse light in galaxies. Credit: Yale University

Follow-up observations will come with the Hubble Space Telescope. If it turns out that these galaxies are not bound to M101, the results will be equally interesting to astronomers.

“There are predictions from galaxy formation theory about the need for a population of very diffuse, isolated galaxies in the universe,” stated Allison Merritt, a Yale graduate student who led the research.

“It may be that these seven galaxies are the tip of the iceberg, and there are thousands of them in the sky that we haven’t detected yet.”

The research was published in Astrophysical Journal Letters and is also available in preprint version on Arxiv.

Source: Yale University

The Contributor to SN 2011fe

Astrophoto: Supernova PTF11kly in M101 by Rick Johnson


When discovered on August 24, 2011, supernova 2011fe was the closest supernova since the famous SN 1987A. Located in the relatively nearby Pinwheel galaxy (M101), it was a prime target for scientists to study since the host galaxy has been well studied and many high resolution images exist from before the explosion, allowing astronomers to search them for information on the star that led to the eruption. But when astronomers, led by Weidong Li, at the University of California, Berkeley searched, what they found defied the typically accepted explanations for supernovae of the same type as 2011fe.

SN 2011fe was a type 1a supernova. This class of supernova is expected to be caused by a white dwarf which accumulates mass contributed by a companion star. The general expectation is that the companion star is a star evolving off the main sequence. As it does, it swells up, and matter spills onto the white dwarf. If this pushes the dwarf’s mass over the limit of 1.4 times the mass of the Sun, the star can no longer support the weight and it undergoes a runaway collapse and rebound, resulting in a supernova.

Fortunately, the swollen up stars, known as red giants, become exceptionally bright due to their large surface area. The eighth brightest star in our own sky, Betelgeuse, is one of these red giants. This high brightness means that these objects are visible from large distances, potentially even in galaxies as distant as the Pinwheel. If so, the astronomers from Berkeley would be able to search archival images and detect the brighter red giant to study the system prior to the explosion.

But when the team searched the images from the Hubble Space Telescope which had snapped pictures through eight different filters, no star was visible at the location of the supernova. This finding follows a quick report from September which announced the same results, but with a much lower threshold for detection. The team followed up by searching images from the Spitzer infrared telescope which also failed to find any source at the proper location.

While this doesn’t rule out the presence of the contributing star, it does place constraints on its properties. The limit on brightness means that the contributor star could not have been a luminous red giant. Instead, the result favors another model of mass donation known as a double-degenerate model

In this scenario, two white dwarfs (both supported by degenerate electrons) orbit one another in a tight orbit. Due to relativistic effects, the system will slowly lose energy and eventually the two stars will become close enough that one will become disrupted enough to spill mass onto the other. If this mass transfer pushes the primary over the 1.4 solar mass limit, it would trigger the same sort of explosion.

This double degenerate model does not exclusively rule out the possibility of red giants contributing to type Ia supernovae, but recently other evidence has revealed missing red giants in other cases.

How to See the Brightest Supernova in a Generation

Astrophoto: Supernova PTF11kly in M101 by Rick Johnson


Here at Universe Today, we’ve been providing plenty of coverage on the recent supernova in spiral galaxy M101 (AKA Pinwheel Galaxy). Readers have uploaded their images to our Flickr page and have been asking about the event, weeks after it was detected.

While the supernova has been dimming since its peak brightness, most supernova events brighten quickly, but fade slowly. This supernova is by no means visible with the naked eye, but here’s what you need to know to catch a glimpse of the brightest supernova in the past few decades.

First a short primer on M101: Nicknamed the “Pinwheel Galaxy” for its resemblance to the toy, M101’s distinct spiral arms can be imaged with modest amateur astronomy equipment. M101 is about six megaparsecs ( 1 parsec is just over three and one-quarter light years ) away from our solar system, which is over six times more distant than our closest neighbor, the Andromeda Galaxy. M101 is a galaxy that is much larger than our own galaxy – nearly double the size of the Milky Way.

What made M101 newsworthy as of late was the Type Ia supernova discovered inside the galaxy. Discovered nearly a month ago on August 24th, SN 2011fe (initial designation PTF 11kly) started off at around 17th magnitude and recently peaked around magnitude 10 (magnitude 6-7 is limit of “naked-eye” visibility with dark skies).

Scientists and amateur astronomers alike have scrambled to gather data on SN 2011fe. Some observers have even looked through data collected in late August only to see they captured the supernova without knowing it!

Supernova PTF11kly / SN 2011fe in Messier 101. Credit: Joe Brimacombe

By mid-September, though, SN 2011fe has become too faint for casual observers to see, but experienced amateur astronomers can still see it with telescopes. If you don’t have a good-sized “amateur” telescope, you might consider contacting a local astronomy club to see if they are having a “star party” or observing night in your area. To find an astronomy club, check out NASA’s Night Sky Network.

Viewing M101 and SN 2011fe isn’t terribly challenging, so long as you have a decent view to the North. You can find M101 by using the Big Dipper asterism (Ursa Major for the constellation purists). Look for the last two stars of the Big Dipper’s handle (Mizar and Alkaid). Above the midpoint between the two stars is M101. For those with motorized telescopes, start at Mizar, slew a little to the east and up a little. People who are lucky enough to have a computerized, “Go-To” scope can enter the RA and Dec coordinates of 14:03:05.81 , +54:16:25.4.

This week you’ll want to try viewing M101 in late evenings, otherwise you may find it too close to the horizon and washed out by the waning gibbous Moon. To your eyes, M101 will appear as a fuzzy “smudge” in the eyepiece. If you are at a very dark site and use averted (looking slightly to the side of the object) vision you might see some detail with a 12″ or larger telescope. You can certainly view M101 with a telescope as small as 6″, but you really do want to view M101 with as big of a telescope as possible. Don’t use higher power eyepieces to try and make up for a small telescope. Many galaxies, including M101 are best viewed with mid-to-low power eyepieces.

Below is an image generated by Stellarium. In the image are a few constellations and some guide stars you can use to guide your eyes and telescope to M101.

Clear skies and good luck!

Location of M101 at 9 PM ( 33 Degrees N. ) Image generated with Stellarium

Shiny New Supernova Spotted in Nearby Galaxy


Literally an event of stellar proportions, a new Type Ia supernova has been identified in a spiral galaxy 25 million light-years away! Spotted by Caltech’s Palomar Transit Factory project, this supernova, categorized as PTF11kly, is located 58″.6 west and 270″.7 south of the center of M101. It was first seen yesterday, August 24, 2011.

According to AAVSO Special Notice #250 P. Nugent et al. reported in Astronomical Telegram #3581 that a possible Type-Ia supernova has been discovered by the Palomar Transient Factory shortly after eruption in the galaxy M101 and has been designated “PTF11kly”. The object is currently at a magnitude of 17.2, but may well rise by several magnitudes. The object is well placed within M101 for good photometry, and observations of this potential bright SNIa are strongly encouraged.

There are currently no comparison stars available in VSP for this field; please indicate clearly the comparison stars that you use for photometry when reporting observations to AAVSO. Please retain your images and/or photometry for recalibration when comparison star magnitudes are available.

Need coordinates? The (J2000) coordinates reported for the object are RA: 14:03:05.81 , Dec: +54:16:25.4. Messier 101 is located in the constellation of Ursa Major at RA: 14h 03m 12.6s Dec: +54 20′ 57″

Charts for PTF11kly may be plotted with AAVSO VSP. You should select the DSS option when plotting, as the galaxy will not appear on standard charts. This object has been assigned the name “PTF11kly” for use with AAVSO VSP and WebObs; please use this name when reporting observations until it is conclusively classified as a supernova and a proper SN name is assigned.

Image of M101 and PTF11kly by Joseph Brimacombe.

Type Ia supernovae are the result of a binary pair of mismatched stars, the smaller, denser one feeding on material drawn off its larger companion until it can no longer take in any more material. It then explodes in a catastrophic event that outshines the brightness of its entire galaxy! Astronomers believe that Type Ia supernovae occur in pretty much the same fashion every time and thus, being visible across vast distances, have become invaluable benchmarks for measuring distance in the Universe and gauging its rate of expansion.

The fact that this supernova was spotted literally within a day of its occurrence – visibly speaking, of course, since M101 is 25 million light-years away and thus 25 million years in our past – will be extremely handy for astronomers who will have the opportunity to study the event from beginning to end and learn more about some of the less-understood processes involved in Type Ia events.

“We caught this supernova earlier than we’ve ever discovered a supernova of this type. On Tuesday, it wasn’t there. Then, on Wednesday, boom! There it was – caught within hours of the explosion. As soon as I saw the discovery image I knew we were onto something big.”

– Andy Howell, staff scientist at Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope

It’s a big Universe and there are a lot of stars and therefore a lot of supernovae, but getting a chance to study one occurring so recently in a galaxy so relatively close to our own is something that is getting many astronomers very excited.

So, get those CCD camera out and best of luck!

Keep up with the latest news on PTF11kly on the site, and check out Phil Plait’s informative article on his BadAstronomy blog. Also read the press release from the University of California here.

Tammy Plotner also contributed to this article.


Jason Major is a graphic designer, photo enthusiast and space blogger. Visit his website Lights in the Dark and follow him on Twitter @JPMajor and on Facebook for more astronomy news and images!