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South Island amateur stargazer discovers supernova

By Jack Mabire

Published: 4:00PM Saturday March 16, 2013 Source: ONE News

  • An image of the supernova discovered by Peter Aldous of Geraldine (Source: South Canterbury Astronomers Group)
    An image of the supernova discovered by Peter Aldous of Geraldine - Source: South Canterbury Astronomers Group

An amateur South Island astronomer says he remained pretty cool on discovering his first supernova.

Peter Aldous made the discovery on Wednesday after two years of searching the night sky for the elusive sight of an exploding star.

"The first one you get, yeah there's a buzz but I'm quite a laid back person," he told ONE News.

"I'm a salmon fisherman and when I get my first of the season it doesn't excite me as much as other people."

Aldous has two observatories at his base in Geraldine, Canterbury. One he opens once a month for the public to use, and the other is kitted out to scan the sky, on a clear night, for supernovae.

The light from a supernova, a gigantic exploding star, can be brighter than a galaxy before it gradually fades away over weeks or months, but spotting the phenomena relies on luck and a bit of patience.

Aldous's equipment can be programmed to run through the night taking dozens of pictures which he then examines the next morning.

He compares images of the same patch of sky using a programme which quickly flicks between photos taken a few days apart.

"The programme 'blinks' between one and the other and if there's something different it will appear," he said.

"That is when the work begins because you need to check whether it could be minor bodies like asteroids, or a hot pixel from your camera, there's quite a few things you need to go through before you decide this might be a possible supernova."

Once the alternative possibilities had been whittled down, Aldous contacted the Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams (Cbat) within an hour to let them know he may have a sighting.

His friend Stu Parker in nearby Oxford had also spotted the supernova, and another photograph of the same spot needed to be taken the following night before a report was filed for official confirmation.

"You don't get the supernova named after you like a comet," he said. "You just get a number and your name goes on the report.

"When amateurs like me find a supernova and it goes to Cbat, if there's anything of interest the big telescopes of the world turn to it and examine it."

He said there are just a few people in New Zealand scanning the skies for supernovae and his discovery this week has taught him a few lessons for continuing his quest.

"I've got the first one under my belt and I'm learning one or two more things about precise measurements.

"It's a new way of doing astronomy (for me), one day I'll find something incredible!"

Aldous's supernova is invisible to the naked eye, but was spotted in the north-east part of the night sky.