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Central Washington University

Lind Hall Observatory Allows Students to Learn from Amazing Supernova

Undergraduates Hans Berghoff and Ernest Skousen have been able to observe, photograph and collect data for a rare, unusually bright supernova, thanks to the Lind Hall Observatory at Central Washington University. The event, designated as SN 2014J, was discovered by a group of astronomy students in England, in mid-January. As is customary, the group shared the information worldwide, first to verify the event and later to collect data from other astronomers.

"Supernovae are among the most energetically violent events known, and are responsible for the composition and formation of planets and stars like those of our own solar system," said Michael Braunstein, the CWU physics professor who supervises the observatory. "In a galaxy like our own, with on the order of 100 billion stars, we expect, on average, only a few supernova events per century (though there have been no observed supernovae in our own galaxy since 1604!). Had this supernova been a nearby star in our own galaxy it would have been visible in full daylight and would be brighter than the full moon."

Within a few months, a supernova can radiate as much energy as our Sun is expected to emit over its entire life span of billions of years. It is caused by an unstable white dwarf star that begins to gather matter from a neighboring star. This causes its core temperature to rise so high that it triggers an enormous thermonuclear explosion, shooting stellar material into outer space for millions of miles, at tens of millions of miles per hour. It is the brilliant last act of a dying star.

Berghoff and Skousen learned to perform and analyze astronomical observations using the CWU observatory in courses offered by the physics department. Using their skills and knowledge, they were able to accurately pinpoint SN 2014J, which is 11.4 million light years away, and collect striking images of the supernova and its parent galaxy that they are analyzing. The telescope, which was installed in Lind Hall in 1967, will be replaced by a much more modern version in the new Science II building which is being constructed on campus now.

“Due to pretty significant challenges for public observing sessions in the current observatory—both in terms of safety and equipment wear-and-tear, we don't have any plans for a public session dedicated to the supernova at this time,” said Braunstein. “I think most folks would be disappointed looking at it with CWU's current telescope—at 11.4 million light years distant, it is the merest pinpoint of light when viewed by eye through our telescope.  By spring the supernova will almost certainly be too dim to see with our current telescope.”

However, Braunstein notes that “those with access to a good quality telescope and some experience may be able view the supernova, before it dims over the next few weeks and months. It is located in M82 (the Cigar Galaxy), which is in the northwest portion of the constellation Ursa Major. Once M82 is found, the supernova is the star approximately midway between the center of M82 and its edge, and in the plane of the galaxy.”

Braunstein is excited about the opportunities that the new Science II observatory and telescope offer to his students and the community as a whole.

“Students and faculty using the observatory planned for Science Phase II will be able to produce photometric and spectroscopic data for events like SN 2014J over long enough periods of time and with sufficient accuracy that they would be suitable, for instance, for student-authored, peer-reviewed publication,” added Braunstein. “And public events like our Nature of Night series will be greatly enhanced.”

Photo: Supernova SN 2014J [the bright light within the white circle] captured by CWU students Hans Berghoff and Ernest Skousen.

Media Contact: Valerie Chapman-Stockwell, Public Affairs, 509-963-1518, valeriec@cwu.edu   2/10/2014