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Supernova 'of a generation': how you can see it with binoculars

A supernova in the nearby Pinwheel Galaxy is the closest supernova in 25 years. Situated near the Big Dipper, the SN 2011fe supernova can be seen with binoculars this week.

This Hubble Space Telescope image of the face-on spiral galaxy Messier 101, known as the Pinwheel Galaxy, was released in 2006.


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If you’ve got a decent pair of binoculars and clear skies, you’ll have a good view Wednesday night of the closest and brightest supernova display of the past 25 years.

The supernova, named SN 2011fe, is the 136th seen by astronomers this year, but its proximity makes it significant not only for stargazers but to the scientific community.

The event was first observed on Aug. 24, only hours after it first became visible from Earth. Located within the Pinwheel Galaxy, the explosion happened 21 million light-years away – a relatively small distance by astronomical standards.

On the scale of astronomical magnitude, in which brighter objects have lower numbers, it was a 17.2 – about 1 million times too dim to be seen by the naked eye.

Since then, “the supernova of a generation,” has been brightening by the minute and will hit its peak this week, said Joshua Bloom, assistant professor of astronomy at the University of California, Berkeley, in a press release.

By Friday, the supernova could hit magnitude 10, still below the 6.5-magnitude threshold to be seen with the naked eye, but visible with binoculars.

The supernova was a Type Ia event, which means a white dwarf star began to siphon material from a nearby star until it became so massive that it exploded. These types of supernovae, in particular, are important to scientists because they are immensely bright, and so act as cosmic mile markers, helping astronomers calculate distances in space and the expansion of the universe.


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