03 November 2013

Astronomers Say Supernova Will Be Visible From Earth Within 50 Years

Barred Spiral Milky Way. Illustration Credit: R. Hurt (SSC), JPL-Caltech, NASA

A supernova is one of the most brilliant events to take place in the universe and astronomers at The Ohio State University have determined we will see one in the Milky Way Galaxy within the next 50 years.

While the odds of actually seeing a star explode with the naked eye is very low during that time span, a supernova would be visible to specialized telescopes in the form of infrared radiation, wrote the researchers in a report published in The Astrophysical Journal.

“We see all these stars go supernova in other galaxies, and we don’t fully understand how it happens. We think we know, we say we know, but that’s not actually 100 percent true,” said Christopher Kochanek, professor of astronomy at Ohio State. “Today, technologies have advanced to the point that we can learn enormously more about supernovae if we can catch the next one in our galaxy and study it with all our available tools.”

Today’s computer models are able to realistically match what astronomers see in the skies, but actually recording a supernova event from start to finish could prove or disprove those many theoretical models.

Unfortunately, the Milky Way is filled with soot-like dust particles that absorb the light and could potentially obscure a supernova from our view.

“Every few days, we have the chance to observe supernovae happening outside of our galaxy,” said study author Scott Adams, a doctoral student at Ohio State. “But there’s only so much you can learn from those, whereas a galactic supernova would show us so much more.

“Despite the ease with which astronomers find supernovae occurring outside our galaxy, it wasn’t obvious before that it would be possible to get complete observations of a supernova occurring within our galaxy,” Adams added. “Soot dims the optical light from stars near the center of the galaxy by a factor of nearly a trillion by the time it gets to us. Fortunately, infrared light is not affected by this soot as much and is only dimmed by a factor of 20.”

For anyone who might want to see a Milky Way supernova with the naked eye, the chances are lower and depend on an observer’s latitude on Earth. Adams determined between a 20 and 50 percent chance of seeing a galactic supernova with the unaided eye from somewhere on Earth within the next 50 years. Observers in the southern hemisphere would get the best chance because they can see more of the Milky Way in their night sky. As latitude of the observer increases, the chance of seeing a supernova drops, to as low as 10 percent in Ohio, for example.

In 1604, when Johannes Kepler famously spotted a supernova about 20,000 light years away, he was in northern Italy at the time. Adams said the odds Ohioans would see a similar dazzling supernova is only around 5 percent.

“The odds of seeing a spectacular display aren’t in our favor, but it is still an exciting possibility!” he concluded.

“With only one or two happening a century, the chance of a Milky Way supernova is small, but it would be a tragedy to miss it, and this work is designed to improve the chances of being ready for the scientific event of a lifetime,” added John Beacom, professor of physics and astronomy at Ohio State.

Read now: Sagittarius A*: A glimpse of the violent past of Milky Way's giant black hole


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