A supernova lights up in the northern sky

You might not have noticed (and that’s okay really), but for a few days now, astronomers around the world have been pretty excited.

The top image shows what M82 – a galaxy located near the constellation of Ursa Major (the Big Dipper) – looked like until recently, and how it looks now. Notice something? A new light has appeared. It’s not a new star, but just the opposite, a star dying in a massive explosion called a supernova. And it took the light from this dying star more than 11 million years to reach us.

A supernova lights up in the northern sky

Image of the galaxy M82 before and after the supernova. Credit: UCL/University of London Observatory/Steve Fossey/Ben Cooke/Guy Pollack/Matthew Wilde/Thomas Wrigh

This event triggered an alert as a priority target and some of the world’s largest telescopes were repositioned within hours to study this new supernova.

Just imagine, this is the light from a single star in a galaxy made of billions, and yet it shines so bright it outshines the rest of them.

The last time a supernova happened “that close” was in 1987 when a supernova exploded just 168,000 light years away. And the time before that, in 1604…

So, as cosmic events go, this is pretty cool, short of a massive supernova becoming visible with the naked eye in broad daylight, or a huge meteor crashing into the Earth.

Now the really exciting bit: it should keep getting brighter in the coming days and even become visible with binoculars before fading away forever. So if you can, grab your binoculars or small telescope and go out on a clear night to take a look at it, and pause for a minute to think about this cataclysmic event that occurred millions of years ago in a far away galaxy and the incredible journey the light from this dying star has taken to reach Earth.

For more on the topic, read this blog post from the Bad Astronomer.


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