Boom goes the star

One of the most amazing things about the lives we lead is that amazing, apocalypse-scale events are happening that some people don’t even know about.

A long time ago, (about 12 million years, give or take) in a galaxy far, far away (but close enough to be seen with a low-powered telescope) a star exploded, ejecting the elements it produced into space. What Eh? finds so fascinating is that viewers on Earth are able to watch this stellar death rattle right now, today (or tonight, rather). Eh? will let Astro Bob (Bob King) explain more:

Like one of those famous exploding cigars in a Groucho Marx movie, nature imitates life by producing an exploding cigar of its own — a brand-new, bright supernova in the “Cigar Galaxy” M82 in the Great Bear. It was discovered only Tuesday night by astronomer S.J. Fossey. Even a 3-inch telescope under a dark sky can snare this one.

M82 goes by the nickname the Cigar Galaxy from its highly elongated shape. Through a small telescope it looks like a ghostly streak of light. At just 12 million light years from Earth it’s one of the closer galaxies to our home, making it bright enough to see in binoculars. Through a telescope, M82 is closely accompanied by the equally bright galaxy M81. Together they’re a favorite target on winter and spring nights for beginning and amateur astronomers.

The big surprise is that no one found the object sooner. Most supernovae are spotted either by professional survey programs or amateur versions of the same when they’re around 15th magnitude or fainter. Not this one. It was brighter than 12th magnitude at discovery, but had someone been looking, it was easily visible in amateur instruments as early as Jan. 16.

In plain English, what we’re witnessing back here from our cozy homes on Earth is the complete annihilation of a super-compact, planet-size star called a white dwarf. Before anyone knew the star would explode, it spent millennia gravitationally siphoning off gas from a very close companion star. That material accumulated on its sizzling surface, adding to the weight of the little star. When the star reached the ultimate limit of 1.4 times the mass of the sun, it imploded under its own weight, heated up to billions of degrees and burned explosively. Boom! A supernova was born.

Read more about this event, and other awesome astronomy-related posts at