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News @ Minnesota State University Moorhead

A Stellar Night

Posted on February 25, 2014

Physics and astronomy department captures day-old supernova

Jan. 22 was a stellar night for MSUM’s physics and astronomy department.

Professor Juan Cabanela, physics and astronomy, and physics majors Nathan Heidt, Laura Herzog, Michael Meraz, and Beau Scheving, made a trek to the Paul P. Feder Observatory in an attempt to capture images of a day-old supernova.

The supernova, located in the galaxy M82, was temporarily designated PSN J09554214+6940260. Now confirmed, the supernova has been renamed SN 2014j. The stellar explosion, marking the last moments of a star’s life, happened to be one of the closest, and therefore brightest, to occur near the Earth in the last 25 years.

“This is the kind of opportunity we enjoy from a teaching point of view,” Cabanela said.

The group was able to capture images of the galaxy’s supernova by using red, blue and green filters over the black-and-white camera attached to the telescope. By layering the images in Photoshop, a composite image was made in full color.

“There’s a surprising amount of work that goes into one image,” Cabanela said. “Technology is rather stunning.”

The final image is composed of 43 individual shots, each exposed for a period of 2 to 3 minutes. This totals a stunning 103 minutes of footage, all compressed into one final image.

It is often difficult to get a clear and bright photograph, especially when a supernova is this young. However, Cabanela said the supernova in galaxy M82 is the brightest he has ever seen, and definitely the closest.

Galaxy M82 is located 11.5 million light years away though it is one of the closest to Earth, meaning the death of this particular star occurred much before any modern-day humans or wildlife walked the Earth.

The most difficult part of the excursion was battling the minus 15 degree temperatures. After three and a half hours, the freezing professor and students knew their work was worth it.

“For me, it’s fun to see their excitement at stuff like this,” Cabanela said. “Being one of the first groups in the world to see the supernova was exciting for them.”

Heidt, a junior, agrees that the evening’s work was well worth it, both in an academic and purely inquisitive sense.

Cabanela said that the physics and astronomy department may consider producing a movie of the supernova’s progress over the next few months.


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