Tweets from amateur astronomers have led to the discovery of a supernova located in the Whirlpool Galaxy, 25 million light years from Earth.
On May 31, amateur astronomer Amédée Riou spotted what appeared to be a “new” star in a CCD image of the galaxy, which is more formally known as M51. The discovery was confirmed by a number of other amateurs, and images began to circulate on the web.
One of those images was spotted by Derek Fox, an assistant professor at Penn State University’s astronomy and astrophysics department, who forwarded it on to Brad Cenko, a postdoctorate researcher at the University of California, Berkeley. It just so happened that he was controlling one of the two 10-metre telescopes at the Keck Observatory on the summit of Mauna Kea in Hawaii.
He immediately pointed the telescope right at the galaxy, but just before he could image the supernova, the telescope had to be closed down due to fog forming. Happily, two hours later, the fog had cleared and Cenko and his supervisor Alex Filippenko were able to get a spectrum for the supernova, confirming it as a Type II — coming from a huge star, eight times the mass of the sun.
Catching a supernova in the process of exploding is a rare achievement, and Filipenko says that this is the first time that he’s been alerted to one by a tweet. “We’ve been alerted many times via email, and in a sense, I was alerted via an email message, but it was from a colleague who was alerted through a tweet,” he told Discovery. “To my knowledge, that is unprecedented.”