A Star Dies in a Distant Corner of the Sky


OK, it’s just a dot. But that dot is a massive star ending its life in a titanic supernova explosion.

Unlike all the other stars in this picture, which are close by in the foreground of our own Milky Way Galaxy, that one star indicated is 38 million light years away. It lies in another galaxy altogether, in the outer spiral arm of the galaxy M95. Discovered on March 16, Supernova SN 2012aw is now shining with the light of a hundred million suns as it blasts most of its starstuff into space.

It is these types of stellar explosions that seed the universe with the elements heavier than lead.

I took this shot Monday, April 9 through my 5-inch refractor, an instrument not ideally suited for shooting small objects like galaxies. But its wider field here does take in not just M95 but also its companion in space, the spiral M96 at left. Both are barred spiral galaxies in Leo, on the list of targets compiled by Charles Messier in the late 18th century and favourites of backyard astronomers. It’s rare to get a supernova as bright as this (anyone with a modest telescope can see it) letting off in a well-known “top 100” galaxy like M95.

Take a look on the next clear night, and contemplate the cosmic forces at work to make visible a single star across a gulf of 38 million light years.

— Alan, April 10, 2012 / © 2012 Alan Dyer

 

Venus Meets the Seven Sisters


The goddess of love meets the daughters of Atlas — it isn’t often we get to see such a sight!

This is brilliant Venus shining amid the stars of the Pleiades, on the evening of Tuesday, April 3, 2012, with Venus as close to the Seven Sisters star cluster as I can ever remember seeing.

Venus last passed near the Pleiades in April 2004 (though not as closely as it did tonight), and will again in April 2020, reflecting the 8-year periodicity of Venus’s return to the same place in the sky. Thus the 8-year interval between the June 2004 transit of Venus and the one this June in 2012.

I took this through a 92mm aperture refractor, but added the classic spikes of light (which you would normally get only when shooting through a Newtonian reflector telescope) by taping some wire in front of the lens. It’s a technique that’s strictly for show. Some high cloud moving in, supposedly in advance of a big spring snowstorm, added the glow around Venus.

This was one of many superlative Venus events this year. Enjoy the sight of Venus now that it is as high as it ever gets in our northern hemisphere evening sky. We won’t see it quite as good as this again until 2020.

— Alan, April 3, 2012 / © 2012 Alan Dyer