In September 2011, with our binoculars and telescopes we all witnessed SN 2011fe (initially named PTF11kly) blowing up to become a Type 1A Supernova. One thing about Type 1A Supernova is that astronomers around the world discover around 280-400 of them each year.
Yes, a star blows up almost every alternative day. So what was so exciting about SN 2011fe?
The fact that it was visible to the hobbyists. And this is the first time after more than 30 years that a supernova was visible to the naked eye. One of a kind opportunity. And we’ll never know if we shall have such an opportunity again in our lifetime.
The supernova was detected by an automated survey of the Messier 101 on 24th August at Palomar Transient Factory (PTF) within hours of its occurrence. The Messier 101, also known as the Pinwheel Galaxy, is a spiral galaxy like our Milky Way about 21 million light years from Earth. Now 21 million light years may seem like a long distance, but for astronomers it is actually pretty close. Remember, we are talking about another galaxy, not just a star in our own Milky Way. The image above may help to locate the supernova. It would be best visible during twilight towards the west in the Northern Hemisphere. Unfortunately, if you were in Australia or any other part of the Southern Hemisphere, you didn’t have the luck.
At the time of its not-so-glamorous discovery, SN 2011fe was a million times too dim to be visible to the naked eye. But it has brightened and is still getting brighter. And right now it is the brightest star in M101 galaxy.
Such supernovas reach the brightness of more than a billion suns, because the process creates radioactive elements that decay and emit light.
SN 2011fe can help us understand the mystery of death of stars and what will happen to our own sun at the end of its life, about 5 billion years from now. This kind of Supernova occurred before in 1937 and 1572, when we didn’t have sophisticated telescopes and mechanisms to study them properly. Today, we have all the necessary equipment that can see the ultraviolet, and visible light. Remarkable!