A nearby white dwarf went supernova in 2011, giving scientists an unprecedented look at a rare Type Ia supernova. They discovered that it's remarkably, stunningly, perfectly 'normal.'
B. J. Fulton / Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope Network
Astronomers have weird names for things. Blame it on the fact that they started naming stars and planets a long, long time ago, back when they thought the sun went around the Earth. "Planet" means wanderer, even though planetary orbits are completely regular and predictable. A "planetary nebula" has nothing whatsoever to do with planets. And a Type II (aka Type 2, but astronomers insist on Roman numerals) supernova is common, but a Type Ia (1a) supernova is rare, with a bizarre origin story.
Rare, but useful. (We'll get to that.)
A group of astronomers just announced that they've found the perfect Type Ia supernova. The Platonic ideal of Type Ia supernovae: 2011fe.
What makes 2011fe so perfect? For one thing, the supernova spotters (known as the Nearby Supernova Factory) found it almost right away in August, 2011, when the supernova was less than 12 hours old.
“We’d never before seen a Type Ia supernova this early,” said Greg Aldering of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in a press release. For another, it's right in our galactic backyard – just 21 million light years away – so we got a crystal-clear view. Amateur astronomers could see it through binoculars.
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