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APSU alums among first to observe, photograph new supernova

Two APSU alumni were part of a group of high school teachers at Kitt Peak National Observatory that unexpectedly obtained some of the earliest photographs of a newly exploded supernova in a nearby galaxy.
Two APSU alumni were part of a group of high school teachers at Kitt Peak National Observatory that unexpectedly obtained some of the earliest photographs of a newly exploded supernova in a nearby galaxy.

Mike and Constance Brown, Clarksville, and 16 other teachers were chosen from 130 applicants nationwide to participate in the Teacher Leaders in Research Based Science Education (TLRBSE) program conducted by the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO). They were learning how to take color telescope images on June 30 when they gathered “some of the earliest images of the supernova taken with broadband filters,” according to Dr. Stephen Pompea, manager of science education at NOAO.

Although they had no way of knowing it at the time, the group had observed and photographed the new supernova just days after its discovery by German amateur astronomer Wolfgang Kloehr on June 28.

Constance Brown, a teacher at McEwen High School, programmed the computer directing the telescope to the Whirlpool Galaxy, a classic spiral galaxy that is visible high in the early evening sky. Her husband, Mike, a teacher at Montgomery Central High School, stored the images obtained from the telescope on a separate computer.

“The teachers could barely contain their excitement when they realized they happened to be among the first researchers to take science-quality images of the new supernova,” said TLRBSE Project Manager Dr. Katy Garmany. “One of the key elements of the TLRBSE program is training the teachers to think and work like research astronomers, and then let them go do it, but this certainly exceeds all of our hopes and expectations.”

The TLRBSE teachers made further images of the Whirlpool Galaxy after the discovery was announced, and they obtained spectroscopic data with the Kitt Peak 2.1-meter telescope.

Scientists believe the star was a fresh Type II supernova, which is produced when the iron core of a single massive star collapses and rapidly implodes. The progenitor star that produced the supernova has been identified, a rare situation for supernovae discovered in distant galaxies like the Whirlpool Galaxy, which is located 37 million light-years from Earth in the constellation Canes Venatici (near the handle of the Big Dipper).

This identification will allow astronomers to learn more about the types of stars that end their lives as supernovae.

The Browns also are working on a radio telescope project for students in grades K-12 in conjunction with NASA. They are on the National Educational Advisory Board for the project, called the Space Weather Sounds Scavenger Hunt (SWSSH).

To obtain one of the images the TLRBSE teachers made of the supernova, visit http://www.noao.edu/outreach/press/pr05/images/m51_sn.jpg.
—Rebecca Mackey