A star burst 25 million light-years away in the massive Pinwheel galaxy, observable via modest telescopes. On May 19, supernova-hunting astronomer Koichi Itagaki noticed the bright abnormality in the sky, attracting other scientists’ telescopes.
Not all stars die in supernovae. After exhausting their fuel, stars eight times the sun or larger collapse. Astronomers discovered a previous outburst in Messier 101, the Pinwheel galaxy, about a decade ago. Once again.
“Messier 101, the ‘Pinwheel’ galaxy, did it again,” stated Virtual Telescope Project director Gianluca Masi online. “After supernova SN 2011fe, one of the brightest ones of the last decades, this stunning ‘cosmic island’ offers us another huge cosmic explosion: supernova SN 2023ixf.”
See the exploding star
Radiant explosions aren’t seen. Masi said modest telescopes can see it. Masi’s photograph clearly shows that. On May 25, he will webcast the supernova at 22:00 UT (17:00 ET, or 5 p.m. ET).
Even through telescopes, the supernova is a dot. This happened in a separate galaxy, not our Milky Way. The Pinwheel galaxy’s “head-on” orientation makes it a sight to see. It’s massive. “The giant spiral disk of stars, dust, and gas is 170,000 light-years across—nearly twice the diameter of our galaxy, the Milky Way,” NASA says. “M101 is estimated to contain at least one trillion stars.”
The Pinwheel galaxy is close cosmically. That enhances this explosion. Andy Howell, an astronomer who studied the Pinwheel galaxy’s 2011 supernova, tweeted that a supernova this near to us only happens “around once a decade.”
“Backyard telescopes should be able to see it for a few months, though it will just be a point of light,” Howell said.
The Pinwheel galaxy is well-known in the sky and frequently seen by stargazers when visible. Alkaid marks the Big Dipper’s handle.
NASA’s school bus-sized telescope orbits Earth. The Hubble Space Telescope captured the Pinwheel galaxy in 2017, years before the supernova:
Our galaxy has big stars nearing explosion. When they erupt, crimson big stars like Betelgeuse in Orion will outshine all other stars.
“We don’t know where the next supernova will come from,” Or Graur, an associate professor of astronomy at Portsmouth who studies supernovae, told Mashable.