Physics Photo of the Week

September 16, 2011

Major Supernova in M101
There was a major discovery on August 24 of a major supernova in a fairly close galaxy, M101 - the "Pinwheel Galaxy".  This supernova was discovered by the Polomar Transient Factory - an automatic system of imaging galaxies looking for new astronomical objects.  This has since brightened to be brightest supernova to be visible from Earth for more than 20 years. 

On Sept. 14, Warren Wilson students: Alexandra Boeling, Josh Carpenter, Grace Hatton, Anna Louise Long, and Chris O'Leary helped me obtain WWC's first image of the new supernova in spite of partial cloudiness.

The spiral galaxy, M101, is easily visible in this photograph.  The supernova, designated SN2011 fe is the brightest star in the image - located in the lower center of the image.  The impressive feature of the supernova is how bright it is.  No individual stars can be resolved in the galaxy (21 million light
years distant).  About 100 billion stars are all blended together into the hazy spiral structure with most stars located in the central nucleus.  The clumpiness of the spirals are major stellar clusters in the galaxy.  All the other distinct stars in the image are quite close within our own Milky Way galaxy.  The local stars are perhaps no more than 400 light years distant.  Since the supernova is quite a bit brighter than the field stars, and is 50,000 times further away, the supernova has an intrinsic brightness of over 2.5 billion suns!

In April 2008 astronomy students (Emma Berger-Singer, Forrest Brown, Sean
Moffit, and Phil Waidner) helped me image the same galaxy.  Little did we know that the light from the supernova was only 2 1/2 light years from reaching the Earth having been en-route for about 21 million years.  It is interesting to compare the 2008 image with the new image in the blink comparison at the right.

Even though the new supernova is the brightest observed in a number of years, it requires a telescope to observe.  It is easily observable with WWC's 8-inch telescope (donated by Bernard Arghierre) and the CCD camera (provided by the AAS Small Projects Grant).

Physics Photo of the Week is published weekly during the academic year on Fridays by the Warren Wilson College Physics Department.  These photos feature interesting phenomena in the world around us.  Students, faculty, and others are invited to submit digital (or film) photographs for publication and explanation.  Atmospheric phenomena are especially welcome.  Please send any photos to 

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