Brief Candle

31 May 2023

The Pinwheel Galaxy, also known as M101, is a spiral galaxy just 21 million light years away. It’s a popular galaxy for photographs because it’s oriented to us face-on. This means you can see the bright whorled spirals and dark cloud regions, even in amateur photographs. Since it’s relatively close and bright, you can get a good view of it, even with a small telescope. It also happens to have a supernova at the moment.

The last time the Pinwheel Galaxy had a visible supernova was in 2011. That one was a Type Ia supernova, the kind used to measure cosmic distances. This new one appeared in May and is a Type II supernova. These are also known as core-collapse supernovae since they occur when a massive star runs out of elements to fuse and its core collapses under its own weight to become a neutron star.

A new supernova in M101. Florian Rünger, via Wikipedia
A new supernova in M101.

The supernova is currently at about a magnitude 11, meaning that if you have dark skies and at least a 4-inch telescope, you can see it with your own eyes. If you don’t have such luxuries, there are lots of captured images of the supernova popping up on the web, since it’s now a popular target for amateur astronomers. The supernova, named SN 2023ixf, is expected to brighten a bit more over the next couple of months before gradually fading.

On the cosmic scale, this supernova is remarkably close. Astronomers observe supernovae all the time, but it is only every decade or so that we get to observe one so near us. SN 2023ixf observations will help astronomers better understand the evolution of core-collapse supernovae, as well as how they enrich the universe with heavy elements.

So if you have the chance, grab your telescope or reach out to your local astronomer, before this brief candle goes out.