Amateur Astronomer Captures Supernova’s First Winks of Light

Scientists say the chances were less than one in a million

If you look closely at the lower right of galaxy NGC 613, the baby supernova pops into existence at the end of one of the galaxy's spiral arms. Víctor Buso and Gastón Folatelli

A star's life ends with a bang, exploding in a spectacular supernova. Spotting those first rays of light is a rare occurrence—a chance of one in a million, scientists say. But an amateur astronomer accidently captured just such an event while testing out his new camera.

On September 20, 2016 Victor Buso, locksmith and amateur astronomer​, was taking pictures of galaxies on his rooftop in Rosario Argentina​. As Newsweek’s Katherine Hignett reports, he was not entirely happy with his images, so he set his sights on a spiral galaxy 86 million light years away called NGC 613—one he'd hear had a greater chance of producing supernovae.

And though he didn't set out to find the incredibly rare wink of light, as Mary Beth Griggs reports for Popular Science, after 45 minutes of taking pictures, Buso noticed a tiny speck in the corner of his shot. He watched it grow brighter over time, capturing the birth of a supernova.

Buso knew he had something and quickly sought out the advise of fellow amateur astronomer Sebastian Otero, Griggs reports. Together the duo submitted the find to the Transient Name Server, a database of short-lived astronomical phenomena. 

Researchers quickly joined in on the analysis, but as Griggs reports, Melina Bersten, researcher at the Instituto de Astrofísica de La Plata in Argentina realized the significance of the find. Along with a team of researchers, Bersten​ studied these early stages of supernovae life, naming the supernova SN 2016gkg. They published their results this week in the journal Nature.

Scientists believe this is the first time a photograph has captured this early phase of supernova formation, which only lasts a few minutes, Hignett writes. “Some supernova have been discovered hours after explosion. But Victor Buso caught the exact minutes when the supernova was being born,” Bersten, who was lead author of the new study, tells Newsweek.

Before Buso made his observation, scientists had only theorized the process of a supernova’s creation. The idea was that an explosive shockwave starts in the star’s core, traveling outward. When it reaches the surface, it releases a burst of energy, according to a press release. Now, they have evidence of this event.​

The chances of the observation are exceedingly rare. "If we think that on average each galaxy roughly produces one supernova per century, and that a century contains nearly 900 thousand hours, then the chance probability of observing the right galaxy at the right moment is not much greater than one in a million,” Bersten says in a press release. But the true chances are even smaller since the rare event can only be seen at night and when the sky is clear.

Researchers hope they can capture the next discovery without leaving it up to chance. As Griggs reports, facilities to monitor such events in their initial stage are in the works. But, as Bersten tells Popular Science, Buso’s discovery showcases what amateur astronomers are capable of doing in their own backyards. 

Editor's Note February 25, 2018: The location of the supernova in the image has been corrected. It appears in the lower right of the galaxy, not the lower left.

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