On the night of September 26, 2016, astronomy fan Víctor Buso began what would be a normal night of testing his telescope. Little did he know that he would become the only known human to have witnessed the surge of light that marks the beginning of a supernova.
Notoriously difficult to see, supernovas are usually detected long after the initial dazzling session that Buso was so lucky to witness. Setting his camera to the end of the telescope, only after using special software on his camera to compile the 40 images, he noticed with amazing clarity the supernova’s breakout moment.
For those unfamiliar with all of this space jargon, a supernova is when a giant star dramatically explodes and essentially dies. The breakout moment is characterized by a violent flash of light, followed by a shockwave breaking through its interior. Over in a flash, this moment has been a challenge for scientists to detect, capture, and analyze.
Astronomers had recently been getting closer and closer to the breakout phase, but not even the most esteemed and experienced astronomer has managed to see what Buso was able to capture with his own home-made observatory.
Unsure of what he had witnessed on the night of discovery, Buso frantically called around Argentine astronomy centers to try and confirm his findings. Given the late hour, Buso was unable to get through, and it turned out that the rest of the astronomy community were able to weigh in.
By the time Buso’s sighting was confirmed as the start of a supernova, word spread like wildfire throughout the rest of the global astronomy community. Soon, astronomy centers from Europe to Australia anxiously waited with their telescopes until nightfall, hoping to glimpse the breakout point of Buso’s supernova.
A year and a few months on, Melina Bersten, Omar Benvenuto and Gastón Folatelli of La Plata’s Astrophysics Center (IALP), as well as Federico García of the Radioastronomy Association and Mariana Orellena of Río Negro National University have been studying the supernova – now dubbed SN 2016gkg – along with collaborations in the U.S and Japan.
Totally impressed by the sighting, Melina and Gastón exclaimed to La Nación that it was the first time in history that an explosion of a star has been seen in such detail and what luck Buso had in capturing it, since observatories have never managed it previously.
Usually impossible to predict, and with supernova breakthroughs being fairly faint and rapid, Buso’s early stage detection has allowed scientists to track the supernova through its evolution and develop models to explain what they saw.
So what’s the significance of all this stargazing then? We hear you. While the pictures are certainly pretty, Buso’s stroke of luck will have an unprecedented impact on the astronomy and science worlds. With an estimated 1 in 10 million chance of sighting, the discovery has sparked a frenzy of research into the breakout phase of the supernova. Analyzing the explosion of a star and the birth of a supernova will allow scientists to understand how the star lived in the first place.
SN 2016gkg will continue to be observed during the coming months and will be re-observed with the Hubble Space Telescope to see what is left at the location as well as confirm its supernova properties, all of which will provide clues about its origin.
Here’s to amateur space discoveries, and Argentines taking on the world of astronomy!