Possible Bright Supernova Lights Up Spiral Galaxy M61

I sat straight up in my seat when I learned of the discovery of a possible new supernova in the bright Virgo galaxy M61. Since bright usually means close, this newly exploding star may soon become visible in smaller telescopes. It was discovered at magnitude +13.6 on October 29th by Koichi Itagaki of Japan, a prolific hunter of supernovae with 94 discoveries or co-discoveries to his credit. Itagaki used a CCD camera and 19.6-inch (0.50-m) reflector to spy the new star within one of the galaxy’s prominent spiral arms. Comparison with earlier photos showed no star at the position. Itagaki also nabbed not one but two earlier supernovae in M61 in December 2008 and November 2006.

The possible supernova in the bright galaxy M61 in Virgo is located 40" east and 7" south of the galaxy's core at right ascension (RA) 12 h 22', declination (Dec) +4º 28' It's currently magnitude +13.4 and visible in the morning sky before dawn in 8-inch and larger telescopes. Credit: Ernesto Guido, Martino Nicolini, Nick Howes
The possible supernova in the bright galaxy M61 in Virgo is located 40″ east and 7″ south of the galaxy’s core at right ascension (RA) 12 h 22′, declination (Dec) +4º 28′. It’s currently magnitude +13.4 and visible in the morning sky before dawn in 8-inch and larger telescopes. Credit: Ernesto Guido, Martino Nicolini, Nick Howes

Overnight, Ernesto Guido and crew used a remote telescope in New Mexico to confirm the new object. We’re still waiting for a spectrum to be absolutely sure this is the real deal and also to determine what type of explosion occurred. In the meantime, it may well brighten in the coming mornings.

M61 is a beautiful barred spiral galaxy located about 55 million light years from Earth in the constellation Virgo. It's one of the few galaxies to show spiral structure in smaller telescopes. Credit: Hunter Wilson
M61 is a beautiful barred spiral galaxy located about 55 million light years from Earth in the constellation Virgo. It’s one of the few galaxies to show spiral structure in smaller telescopes. Credit: Hunter Wilson

Supernovae are divided into two broad categories – Type Ia and Type II. In a Type Ia event,  a planet-sized white dwarf star in close orbit around a normal star siphons off matter from its companion which builds up on the surface of the dwarf until it reaches critical mass at which point the core ignites and consumes itself and the star in one titanic nuclear fusion reaction.  A cataclysmic explosion ensues as the star self-destructs in blaze of glory.

Evolution of a Type Ia supernova. Credit: NASA/ESA/A. Feild
Evolution of a Type Ia supernova. Credit: NASA/ESA/A. Feild

Type Ia explosions can become 5 billion times brighter than the Sun – the reason we can see them across so many light years – and eject matter into space at 5,000 – 20,000 km/second. Type II events mark the end of the life of a massive supergiant star. As these behemoths age, they burn by fusing heavier and heavier elements in their cores from hydrogen to carbon to silicon and finally, iron-nickel. Iron is inert and can’t be cooked or fused to create more energy. The star’s internal heat source, which has been staving back the force of gravity all these millions of years, shuts down.  Gravity takes hold with a vengeance, the star quickly collapses then rebounds in a titanic explosion. Ka-boom! 

Artist's impression of a Type II supernova explosion which involves the destruction of a massive supergiant star. Credit: ESO
Artist’s impression of a Type II supernova explosion which involves the destruction of a massive supergiant star. Credit: ESO

Like the Type Ia event, a Type II supernova grows to fantastic brilliance. Besides a legacy of radiant light, star debris, the creation of heavy elements like gold and lead, a Type II event will sometimes leave behind a tiny, city-sized, rapidly-spinning neutron star – the much compressed core of the original star – or even a black hole. So yes, life can continue for a giant star after a supernova event. But like seeing a former classmate at your 40th high school reunion, you’d hardly recognize it.

The "Y" or cup of Virgo rises into good view shortly before the start of dawn or about 2 hours before sunrise. This map shows the sky facing east around 6 a.m. local time (DST) and 5 a.m. starting Sunday when Daylight Saving Time is done. Source: Stellarium
The “Y” or “cup” of Virgo rises into good view shortly before the start of dawn or about 2 hours before sunrise. This map shows the sky facing east around 6 a.m. local time (DST) tomorrow October 31 and 5 a.m. standard time starting Sunday when Daylight Saving Time ends. Source: Stellarium

Are you itching to see this new supernova for yourself? Here are a couple maps to help you find it. M61 is located in the middle of the “Y” of Virgo not far from the familiar bright double star Gamma Virginis.  From many locations, the galaxy climbs to 15-20° altitude in the east-southeast sky just before the start of dawn, just high enough for a good view. Once you find the galaxy, look for a small “star” superimposed on its eastern spiral arm as shown in the photo at the top of this article.

In this close up view, stars are shown to magnitude +7.5. M61 is right between 16 and 17 Virginis (magnitudes 5 and 6.5 respectively). Source: Stellarium
In this close up view, stars are shown to magnitude +7.5. M61 is right between 16 and 17 Virginis (magnitudes 5 and 6.5 respectively). Click to enlarge.  Source: Stellarium

I’ll be out there with my scope watching and will report back once it’s established what type of supernova happens to be blowing up in our eyepieces. More information about the new object can be found anytime at David Bishop’s Latest Supernovae site. Good luck, clear skies!

** Update Nov. 1 : M61’s supernova now has a name and type! SN 2014dt is a Type Ia (exploding white dwarf) with some peculiarities in its spectrum. It’s also little brighter at magnitude +13.2.

New Supernova Pops in Bright Galaxy M106 in the ‘Hunting Dogs’

A supergiant star exploded 23.5 million years ago in one of the largest and brightest nearby galaxies. This spring we finally got the news. In April, the Katzman Automatic Imaging Telescope (KAIT) as part of the Lick Observatory Supernova Search, photographed a faint “new star” very close to the bright core of M106, a 9th magnitude galaxy in Canes Venatici the Hunting Dogs. 

The core of a red or blue supergiant moments before exploding as a supernova looks like an onion with multiple elements "burning" through the fusion process to create the heat to stay the force of gravity. Fusion stops at iron. With no energy pouring from the central core to keep the other elements cooking, the star collapses and the rebounding shock wave tears it apart.
The inner core of a red or blue supergiant moments before exploding as a supernova looks like an onion with multiple elements “burning” through the fusion process to create the heat and pressure that stays the force of gravity. Fusion stops at iron. With no energy pouring from the central core to keep the other elements cooking, the star collapses and the rebounding shock wave tears it apart.

A study of its light curve indicated a Type II supernova – the signature of a rare supergiant star ending its life in the most violent way imaginable. A typical supergiant star is 8 to 12 times more massive than the sun and burns at a much hotter temperature, rapidly using up its available fuel supply as it cooks lighter elements like hydrogen and helium into heavier elements within its core. Supergiant lifetimes are measured in the millions of years (10-100 million) compared to the frugal sun’s 11 billion years. When silicon fuses to create iron, a supergiant reaches the end of the line – iron can’t be fused or cooked into another heavier element – and its internal “furnace” shuts down. Gravity takes over and the whole works collapses in upon itself at speeds up to 45,000 miles per second.

When the outer layers reached the core, they crushed it into a dense ball of subatomic particles and send a powerful shock wave back towards the surface that rips the star to shreds. A supernova is born!  Newly-minted radioactive forms of elements like nickel and cobalt are created by the tremendous pressure and heat of the explosion. Their rapid decay into stable forms releases energy that contributes to the supernova’s light.

This Hubble Space Telescope image shows how spectacular M106 truly is. Its spiral arms are dotted with dark lanes of dust, young star clusters rich with hot, blue stars and tufts of pink nebulosity swaddling newborn stars. The galaxy is the 106th entry in the 18th century French astronomer Charles Messier's famous catalog. Credit: NASA / ESA
This Hubble Space Telescope image shows how spectacular M106 truly is. Dark filaments of dust are silhouetted against billions of unresolved suns. Young star clusters rich with hot, blue stars and tufts of pink nebulosity swaddling newborn stars ornament the galaxy’s spiral arms. A supermassive black hole rumbles at the heart of the galaxy. M106 is the 106th entry in Charles Messier’s famous catalog created in the 18th century. It’s located 23.5 million light years away. Credit: NASA / ESA

For two weeks, the supernova in M106 remained pinned at around magnitude +15, too faint to tease out from the galaxy’s bright, compact nucleus for most amateur telescopes. But a photograph taken by Gianluca Masi and team on May 21 indicate it may have brightened somewhat. They estimated its red magnitude – how bright it appears when photographed through a red filter – at +13.5. A spectrum made of the object reveals the ruby emission of hydrogen light, the telltale signature of a Type II supernova event.

At magnitude +9, M106 visible in almost any telescope and easy to find. Start just above the Bowl of the Big Dipper which stands high in the northwestern sky at nightfall in late May. The 5th magnitude stars 5 CVn (5 Canes Venatici) and 3 CVn lie near the galaxy. Star hop from the Bowl to these stars and then over to M106. Stars plotted to mag. +8. Click to enlarge. Stellarium
At magnitude +9, M106 visible in almost any telescope and easy to find. Start just above the Bowl of the Big Dipper which stands high in the northwestern sky at nightfall in late May. The 5th magnitude stars 5 CVn (5 Canes Venatici) and 3 CVn lie near the galaxy. Star hop from the Bowl to these stars and then over to M106. Stars plotted to mag. +8. Click to enlarge. Stellarium

Visually the supernova will appear fainter because our eyes are more sensitive to light in the middle of the rainbow spectrum (green-yellow) than the reds and purple that bracket either side. I made a tentative observation of the object last night using a 15-inch (37-cm) telescope and hope to see it more clearly tonight from a darker sky. We’ll keep you updated on our new visitor’s brightness as more observations and photographs come in. You can also check Dave Bishop’s Latest Supernovae site for more information and current images.

Even if the supernova never gets bright enough to see in your telescope, stop by M106 anyway. It’s big, easy to find and shows lots of interesting structure. Spanning 80,000 light years in diameter, M106 would be faintly visible with the naked eye were it as close as the Andromeda Galaxy. In smaller scopes the galaxy’s bright nucleus stands out in a mottled haze of pearly light; 8-inch(20-cm) and larger instrument reveal the two most prominent spiral arms. M106 is often passed up for the nearby more famous Whirlpool Galaxy (M51). Next time, take the detour. You won’t be disappointed.