It was a stroke of luck that put Francis Marion University Professor Dr. Ginger Bryngelson in just the right place, at the just the right time, to watch a 12 million-year-old explosion unfold in the evening sky.
But it really wasn’t an accident.
Bryngelson, a faculty member in FMU’s Department of Physics and Astronomy, is a scientist who specializes in the area of supernovae, especially Type Ia Supernova, a unique subcategory of star explosions. She and co-researcher Dina Drozdov of Clemson University were taking advantage of previously negotiated research time on the Kitt Peak (Arizona) National Observatory’s 4-meter telescope last month when they received word that a brand new supernova had just been discovered. Bryngelson and Drozdov switched their view from the aging Ia supernova they’d been viewing to the “newly” exploded star in the M-82, or “cigar” galaxy. Because they were in the right place and time, they had one of the best views in the world of the new phenomena, and were among just a handful of teams worldwide who were able to take near-infrared images of the new supernova.
“For somebody in my field, it’s really pretty exciting,” says Bryngelson. “You don’t expect it, and it doesn’t happen very often.”
Supernovae, the massive explosions that occur when a dying star runs out of fuel or reaches a critical mass, aren’t that uncommon themselves. There are billions of stars in the universe, and some are reaching the endpoint of their lifecycle all the time. More than 1,000 supernovae were documented in 2013 alone. Type Ia supernovae, which occur when a collapsed star in a binary (double star) system pulls just enough matter away from the adjoining star to trigger a nuclear chain reaction, are more common than other types. But a Type Ia supernova that’s discovered early in its lifespan in a galaxy as relatively close to Earth as M-82 is rare.
“We can see a lot of galaxies,” says Bryngelson. “But there are relatively few this close to Earth. To discover a supernova in one of those is rare. It’s only going to happen so often. It’s basically a numbers game.”
The most recent similar event, in terms of distance and luminosity, occurred 22 years ago. Before that, Bryngelson says scientists have to go back more than 500 years to find a rough match for SN2014J. Astronomy pioneer Tycho Brahe probably saw one in 1572 (with his naked eye). That one was even closer to Earth and helped him develop his case for an ever-changing heavens, as opposed to the long-held idea of a fixed firmament.
Supernovae are fascinating in and of themselves; representing as they do an ancient, far distant cataclysm. Bryngelson says the SN2014J explosion unleashed mind-boggling power. Her calculations suggest that in just the first few weeks of the explosion, the doomed star gave off more energy than our Sun will give off in its entire lifetime. It was a nonillion times more powerful than the atomic bomb that exploded over Nagasaki, Japan during World War II. A nonillion, for the uninitiated, is a one, with 30 zeroes after it.
The sheer power is interesting, but astrophysicists like Bryngelson study supernovae, and Ia supernovae in particular, because they are incredibly useful tools for the task of measuring the universe. This is an ongoing field of research – less than three years ago the Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded for some startling supernova-based measurement research that shows the accelerated expansion of the universe away from its origination event – that refines interstellar distances and basic understandings of the cosmos every day. There’s more to it than this, but essentially physicists use the brightness of stars as a base for calculating distances across space. Type Ia supernovae are particularly useful in this regard because they form in a relatively narrow band of mass, and hence the explosions and the light and energy emitted are more consistent. Some recent research, including preliminary observations of SN2014J, suggest they might not be as consistent as previously thought, but they are still a critical element in the search for cosmic distances.
Bryngelson, a Texas native who obtained her master’s and doctorate in physics from Clemson, latched onto Type Ia supernovae as a field of study years ago. She and Drozdov, a fellow graduate student at Clemson, had applied for and obtained time at Kitt Peak to study an older, far more distant (and hence, dimmer) Type Ia supernovae, when the new star was discovered, somewhat accidentally, by a group of college students in London. Scientists study supernovae for several years – some are visible for up to 800 days after they explode – to learn more about the type of material ejected by the explosion, and also to further refine distant measurements. The chance to study a star like SN2014J is likely a once-in-a-life-time deal for Bryngelson.
“It’s a unique opportunity,” says Bryngelson. “Studying this particular supernova has the potential to produce some extremely useful information.”
Bryngelson and Drozdov will continue to study their original supernovae, but are adding SN2014J to the workload. They’re teaming up with Dr. Peter Milne of the University of Arizona. Milne, like Bryngelson and Drozdov, is a former student of Dr. Mark Leising, chair of the Department of Physics at Clemson.
See stars yourself
Where to look. Supernova SN2014J is just visible in the night time sky with the aid of a telescope. The cigar galaxy (M82) and its nearby neighbor galaxy (M81) is located near the big dipper and will appear high in the Northeast for the next few months. Sky and Telescope Magazine has a great finder image at http://media.skyandtelescope.com/images/M81-M82_finder_m.jpg
Observatory Open House. Dr. Ginger Bryngelson and Dr. Jeannette Myers of the FMU Department of Physics and Astronomy, will host an Open House at the FMU Observatory on Friday, March 7. The public can use (with assistance) some of the telescopes at the university observatory to view fading supernova and other deep space objects. There is no admission. Park in Lot D at the extreme south end of campus and follow the path behind the tennis courts to the observatory. A flashlight might be useful for the walk to and from the observatory.
Planetarium Show. Fittingly, the Sunday, March 9 show at the Dooley Planetarium is “Life and Death of a Star.” Dr. Bryngelson will be among the presenters. There is no admission. Park in lots A or E. The Dooley Planetarium is in Cauthen Educational Media Center.