Supernova reaches peak brightness; grab your binoculars and look up!
Amateur astronomers: Grab a pair of binoculars and look skyward. With a little luck, you might be able to see a supernova or exploding star in the sky tonight. No fancy, inaccessible, high-tech, NASA-type telescopes needed.
The supernova in question, known in the astronomy world as SN 2011fe, was discovered in the Pinwheel Galaxy about two weeks ago by astronomer Peter Nugent, a senior scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
The discovery is noteworthy for two reasons: SN 2011fe is located a mere 21 million light years away, which means this exploding star is the closest supernova to the earth in at least 25 years. Also, scientists found it just hours after it began the exponential growth that signals the end of the star's existence. No other supernova has ever been spotted so early in its life span.
SN 2011fe is about to reach peak brightness, and should be visible with a pair of high resolution binoculars or a 3-inch or longer telescope beginning tonight. However, in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Nugents said the best time for amateur astronomers to see SN 2011fe is five days from now, on Sept. 12, just after the full moon. If you can get out just a few hours after sunset and before the moon rises, you'll hit the sweet spot where the skies are darkest and the supernova is brightest.
To find SN 2011fe, you'll first have to find the Pinwheel Galaxy. It sits north of the last two stars in the Big Dipper's handle, forming a roughly equilateral triangle with them.
Need more help? Nugent put out this video in conjunction with the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory that explains exactly how to find the supernova.
Image credit: BJ Fulton / Byrne Observatory at Sedgwick Reserve and the Palomar Transient Factory