Patrick Wiggins Discovers Bright Supernova in ‘Fireworks Galaxy’ NGC 6946

New Supernova is Bright Enough to Spot from Earth


Confirmed supernova, "SN 2017aew", can be seen on the top right side of the "Fireworks Galaxy" in the center of this animation. Photo Credit: Patrick Wiggins

On May 13, 2017, "Phun With Physics" Outreacher and NASA solar system ambassador to Utah, Patrick Wiggins spotted something unusual in the sky. He was looking at the spiral galaxy NGC 6946 (the "Fireworks Galaxy") in Cygnus, over 22 million light-years away from his telescope and home near Erda, UT. He noticed a bright spot that he hadn't seen before. By comparing what he what he was seeing with earlier photographs taken of the same galaxy, he realized he was witnessing a star explode.

Named "SN 2017aew", Patrick Wiggins' discovery was confirmed on May 14th by two astronomers: Dr. Subo Dong from the Kavli Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics (KIAA) at Peking University, and Dr. Krzysztof Z. Stanek from The Ohio State University, both experts in supernovae.

When a star goes supernova, it is one of the largest, and most impressive astronomical events in space. Situated between a nova and a hypernova in terms of total energy, a supernova occurs when a star's core changes in some manner. This can be due to either a white dwarf gaining too much mass from another star orbiting around the same point in a binary star system until the white dwarf's core is so dense that it collapses due to the overwhelming gravitational force (known as a Type I Supernova), or a massive star (many, many times larger than our own sun) reaches the end of its life and runs out of nuclear fuel. The star's core collapses from its own staggering gravitational forces and explodes (a Type II Supernova). In both cases, these supernovae are astoundingly bright for a time - bright enough to be seen by amateur and professional astronomers alike - until they expend their energy and their bright light begins to fade over the next few months.

Patrick Wiggins
Longtime Utah astronomy educator Patrick Wiggins in 2014. Photo Credit: Bill Dunford

This most recent discovery, SN 2017aew, has been confirmed to be a Type II supernova.

This is the third supernova discovery for Patrick Wiggins. He also discovered "SN 2015Q" in the NGC 3888 galaxy in Ursa Major in 2015. In 2014, supernova "SN2014G" was discovered independently by both Koichi Itagaki in Japan, and Patrick Wiggins.

In addition, Patrick Wiggins has discovered a whole host of astronomical events in space, including an asteroid he discovered in 2008, which the International Astronomical Union named "Univofutah", at Patrick's request, to honor the University of Utah. Wiggins' work has earned him many accolades, including the prestigious Distinguished Public Service Medal, NASA's highest civilian honor.

This story is still developing and will be updated as new information becomes available. Stay tuned.

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