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Stockton, Shih Aided Significant Supernova Study

Alan Stockton

Alan Stockton

Hsin-Yi Shih

Hsin-Yi Shih

Observing a “once-in-a-generation” supernova visible for just 10 minutes became the challenge for IfA astronomers Alan Stockton and Hsin-Yi Shih in August 2011. On the morning of August 25, Stockton received an urgent email from UC Berkeley scientist Peter Nugent. Would Stockton, who was working at the Keck II Telescope on Mauna Kea that night, observe “a new nearby supernova” discovered the previous night by a telescope in California?

Stockton and Shih would have only 10 minutes to make the observations between the time when it grew dark enough to see the supernova and the time when it moved out of range of the Keck. Waiting until the next night meant it would be visible for an even shorter time.

At 21 million light-years from Earth, the supernova (SN 2011fe) is considered very close by cosmic standards. The exploding star was also discovered very early, just after its light first reached Earth, giving astronomers an exceptional opportunity to observe the evolution of its brightness and the spectra of its energy emitted over time. Stockton and Shih fulfilled the request, and in return became co-authors on papers using the data, one of which is published in the December 15 issue of the journal Nature.

 "I am glad we were able to assist in a discovery of this magnitude,” Stockton said. “It was clearly an opportunity that does not come along very often, and it was not a major imposition on our own program.” Shih, a graduate student, added, “It was a thrill to participate in such a momentous study this early in my career.”

The discovery enables scientists for the first time to exclude red giant stars as the companion of the white dwarf star that explodes as a Type Ia supernova, and gives a better idea of how these supernova explosions occur.