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Supernova visible through backyard telescope


Observing a Supernova in the Pinwheel Galaxy

If you own a telescope, now might be a really good time to take a look at a famous galaxy in Ursa Major. If you don’t, but know someone who does, see if they’ll let you take a look – it’s not often you get to watch a giant star explode before your eyes and shine like a billion Suns.

The Pinwheel Galaxy

The Pinwheel Galaxy, also known as Messier 101, is a well-known galaxy with a near-perfect spiral structure and a face-on orientation to Earth. It is relatively close to us, at 21 million lightyears away, making it a favorite target for astrophotographers.

The Supernova

At four minutes to midnight on Friday, May 19, astronomers using the 2-meter Liverpool Telescope confirmed a report by Koichi Itagaki of a possible supernova (named SN 2023ixf) in the Pinwheel Galaxy. We don’t yet know a lot about SN 2023ixf, although with both the Hubble and Swift space telescopes abandoning their planned observations to focus on it, we can expect to learn more soon. Already, the progenitor star appears to have been identified in archival images from the Spitzer telescope, showing fluctuations in its infrared brightness over the last twenty years.

Observing the Supernova

Since the Pinwheel never sets from much of the Northern Hemisphere, it’s a safe bet that many people will be trying to observe the supernova. Current estimates are that the supernova is currently 14th magnitude – just barely within the capacity of a medium-sized home telescope to see under dark skies. Astrophotographers are already taking images, including Andrew McCarthy, known for his astonishingly detailed composites.

History of Supernovae in the Pinwheel Galaxy

Since 1900, the Pinwheel has hosted five supernovae, as well as a particularly spectacular nova. With the Milky Way not having had a confirmed supernova for 400 years, its neighbor is really showing it up. The Pinwheel has 2-10 times as many stars as our own galaxy, but is much more active in forming new ones, possibly because of strong gravitational interactions with its smaller companion galaxies.

Type of Supernova

One of the nearest previous supernovae in the Pinwheel Galaxy was SN 2011fe, a Type Ia supernova (white dwarf). Indeed, 2011fe became the standard against which more distant Type Ias are measured, so SN 2023ixf represents the closest example of a core collapse supernova since 2004.


Observing a supernova in the Pinwheel Galaxy is a rare and exciting opportunity. With the help of modern telescopes and astrophotography techniques, we can learn more about this event and marvel at the wonder of the universe.


What is a supernova?

A supernova is a powerful explosion that occurs when certain types of stars reach the end of their lives. They produce bright bursts of radiation that can outshine entire galaxies for a short period of time.

What causes a supernova?

There are two main types of supernovae: core collapse and Type Ia. Core collapse supernovae occur when a massive star runs out of fuel and the core collapses, causing a rebound that can produce a powerful explosion. Type Ia supernovae occur when a white dwarf star accretes enough mass to exceed the Chandrasekhar limit and undergoes a runaway nuclear fusion reaction.

How far away is the Pinwheel Galaxy?

The Pinwheel Galaxy is located in the constellation of Ursa Major and is approximately 21 million lightyears away.

How many supernovae has the Pinwheel Galaxy had?

The Pinwheel Galaxy has had five confirmed supernovae since 1900, as well as a particularly spectacular nova.

What is astrophotography?

Astrophotography is the practice of taking photographs of astronomical objects and phenomena, using specialized telescopes and cameras. It allows us to capture images of distant galaxies, nebulae, and other celestial objects.


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