Cincy Science: First, there's a Cigar Galaxy. Second, it's hosting a supernova that we can't see

CINCINNATI - Ever ask, "What is that?" Or, "Why is that?" In our new Wednesday feature, WCPO Digital contributor Anne Saker talks with people who can answer those questions: The folks who do science in Cincinnati and the Tri-State.

In January, astronomers trained their optics at a stunning vision, the detonation of a supernova. In the Cigar Galaxy 12 million light years away, a star burped on the last of its fuel and blew up. The supernova can’t be seen with the naked eye or even with the two venerable telescopes at The Cincinnati Observatory.

Still, a supernova is kind of a big deal on the universal scale, so for suitable acknowledgement I turned to Dean Regas, the observatory’s outreach astronomer who runs the public education sessions and does the five-minute PBS astronomy nugget “Star Gazers.” We talks about the celestial as seen from Mount Lookout. 

9 questions for Dean Regas

1. What was this supernova in the Cigar Galaxy, and what makes it interesting?

I’ll preface this with: Personally, it’s not the most exciting thing I’ve seen in a long time. But people love it. What’s really happening is that this giant star exploded in this very distant galaxy. And we’re able to detect this. And when a supernova happens, it takes this galaxy, with 200 billion stars in it, and doubles its brightness. So one star is the equivalent brightness of the entire galaxy for that one moment. So, when you look at this galaxy in a telescope, you see this galaxy, this smudgy, cigar-shaped looking thing, and you see this one dot, that’s brighter, that’s inside of it. And that’s the supernova.

2. If it were in our neighborhood – if the supernova were the sun – how big is big?

If it were the sun, we’d be gone, toast, instantly pretty much. Our sun isn’t big enough to do what that star did, anyway. But if it was a closer star, within our galaxy, then it would be a big significant event. If it were one of the big stars we see at night – like Betelgeuse or Antares , or something like that – then it would be incredibly bright. It would be visible during the daytime. And so, the last time we had one of those was 1604. It was visible during the daytime, so picture this -- when you go outside, there’d be the sun, and then there’s another sun, a pinpoint of light that’s intensely bright, up in the sky.

3. What do supernovas tell us about the universe?

They tell us a lot about the star itself. We can find out a lot about its mass, the original mass of the star. We can tell some of the elements from our investigations of supernovas, we can tell that elements on earth came from that. That’s the only place that they could have come from. So we look at the carbon around here, and the heavy elements.

I always say to people in the audience (during presentations): All right, look at your jewelry you’re wearing, if you have fillings in your teeth, if you wear glasses, and then, if you can look into your blood, and see the iron in the blood, there’s only one place all that stuff could come from, and that’s a supernova. So you are part supernova inside of you.

4. Does that statement generally blow minds, when you say that?

I think so. Some people have heard that before, but they don’t really understand it. It’s one of those ah-ha moments, oh yeah, that’s pretty cool. It also makes them feel good, too; oh, I’m a superstar! And it’s kinda true.

5. Do you have your own telescope? Besides this one at the observatory?

I do, an eight-inch reflector. Nothing very exciting.

6. Are there any likely candidates for supernova that are close to us in the Milky Way galaxy?

Betelgeuse is definitely the key one that we’re going to be looking at. It could go any day. It’s still pretty far away, so it won’t hurt life on Earth, but if it goes really bright, it’ll be a 1604 type of thing. Could have already happened, and the light’s still coming toward us.

7. That’s one of the things that’s hard to grasp, the question of huge time and distance. This Cigar Galaxy supernova occurred...?

....(M)illions and millions of years ago. And we’re just seeing it now.

8. Have you pointed these telescopes (at the observatory) to take a look at it?

The light pollution’s too bad here. We can’t find it. That’s why I’m not excited. People call and say, “Hey, we want to see it!” and I have to tell them, well, you can’t see it.

We’ve thought about having an event for it. But if we can see it, on the best of days, and if it’s clear, and if the conditions are just right, it still just looks like a smudgy thing with a dot in it. That’s not exciting to the average person that sees it. That’s why we stick to the big and bright things, the planets and the moon.

9. Does a supernova make

a noise?

No, not in space. There’s no atmosphere for it to make a noise. If something would interact with an atmosphere, then it would. I suppose if a supernova hit us, there would be a big noise, but if you’re just watching from space, no, there would not be a noise.

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Connect with WCPO Contributor Anne Saker on Twitter: @apsaker

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