A star exploded in a galaxy just 21 million light-years from Earth, giving astronomers a rare opportunity to watch a supernova unfold in real time in exquisite detail.
Supernova SN 2023ixf was discovered in the Pinwheel galaxy, or M101, on May 19 by a Japanese amateur astronomer named Koichi Itagaki. It is the closest supernova to Earth since SN 2014J in 2014, which was about 11 million light-years away. The supernova, which already outshines its host galaxy, is expected to reach its peak brightness in the next few days, but may remain visible for years.
While thousands of supernovae are seen each year, the proximity of 2023ixf means that it can be studied in much more detail than others. Telescopes around the world were pointed in its direction “within hours of its discovery,” says Azalee Bostroem of the University of Arizona, deducing that it was probably a type II supernova, in which a supergiant star runs out of fuel and collapses in on itself earlier. exploding
Bostroem has been allocated time on the Hubble Space Telescope to study the ultraviolet light from the explosion. So far, it appears that the supernova is interacting with material that was previously ejected by the star, which Hubble observations could further investigate. “How stars lose mass is one of the most interesting questions,” says Bostroem.
Two or three stars have been identified as possible progenitors of the supernova, including a type of massive star known as a Wolf-Rayet star, but the supernova is currently too bright to determine which it is. Hubble or even the James Webb Space Telescope could tell us more when the supernova dims.
Observations of 2023ixf may provide invaluable data on our understanding of how supernovae develop. “This is going to be like a Rosetta Stone supernova,” says Bostroem. “It’s going to be one of those that we’ll compare everything against.”
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