Amateur astronomer gets 1-in-10-million shot of supernova’s first light

While testing a new camera, amateur astronomer Víctor Buso witnessed the start of a supernova some 70 million light-years away.
By | Published: February 21, 2018 | Last updated on May 18, 2023
Supernova 2016gkg (indicated by red bars) is in the spiral galaxy NGC 613, located about 70 million light-years from Earth in the constellation Sculptor. On September 20, 2016, amateur astronomer Víctor Buso captured the initial burst of light from this supernova.
UC-Santa Cruz/Las Campanas Observatory
Catching a glimpse of a supernova is tricky business. Not only do you need the right equipment, you also need to have some incredible luck. Fortunately for amateur astronomer Víctor Buso, lady luck decided to pay him a visit on September 20, 2016, while he was testing a new camera mounted to his 16-inch telescope in Rosario, Argentina.

Once the sky was dark, Buso pointed his telescope at NGC 613 — a spiral galaxy located some 70 million light-years away in the constellation Sculptor — to take a series of short-exposure photographs. To ensure his new camera was functioning properly, Buso examined the images right away. This is when he noticed that a previously invisible point of light had appeared on the outskirts of NGC 613, and the point was quickly growing brighter as he moved from one image to the next.

Within no time, astronomer Melina Bersten and her colleagues at the Instituto de Astrofísica de La Plata learned of Buso’s fortunate photo shoot. They immediately realized that Buso had caught an extremely rare event — the initial burst of light from a massive supernova explosion. According to Bersten, the chances of making such a discovery are between 1 in 10 million and 1 in 100 million.

“Professional astronomers have long been searching for such an event,” said UC-Berkeley astronomer Alex Filippenko, whose follow-up observations were critical to analyzing the explosion, in a press release. “Observations of stars in the first moments they begin exploding provide information that cannot be directly obtained in any other way.”

“It’s like winning the cosmic lottery,” he added.

In this series of negative images, supernova SN 2016gkg (circled) can be seen appearing and growing steadily brighter over the course of about 25 minutes. The lower-right panel shows how the brightness changed over time.
Victor Buso, from Melina Bersten data
Once Bersten realized that Buso had accidentally witnessed the first optical light from a normal supernova explosion, she contacted an international group of astronomers to plan and carry out additional follow-up observations over the next two months.

Using the Shane 3-meter telescope at the University of California’s Lick Observatory, as well as the twin 10-meter telescopes of the W. M. Keck Observatory in Maunakea, Hawaii, Filippenko and his colleagues obtained a series of seven spectra. This allowed them to break down the supernova’s light into its constituent components, much like raindrops separate white light into all the colors of the rainbow.

With the spectra, the researchers were able to conclude that SN 2016gkg was a Type IIb supernova, which occurs when a massive star that has lost most of its hydrogen shell explodes.

Furthermore, by comparing the data to theoretical models, the team estimates that the mass of the star before it went supernova was about 20 times the mass of the Sun. However, they point out that the star likely lost around 75 percent of that mass to a companion star prior to the explosion.

Based on all the available data, the researchers believed that Buso captured the first optical images of a supernova undergoing “shock breakout,” which occurs when a supersonic pressure wave from the star’s rebounding core slams into the gas at the star’s surface. This generates a tremendous amount of heat at the star’s surface, which causes a burst of light that rapidly brightens.

The discovery of SN 2016gkg, as well as the results of the follow-up observations, will be published on February 22 in the journal Nature.