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Supernova erupts in Whirlpool Galaxy

French observer Stéphane Lamotte Bailey created this animation of the Whirlpool galaxy’s new supernova using images he took with his 8-inch telescope on May 30 and June 2, 2011. / Stéphane Lamotte Bailey

For the second time in six years, a star has exploded in the iconic Whirlpool Galaxy (Messier 51), and — good news! — it’s in play for backyard observers with medium- to large-aperture telescopes.

The first hint of the eruption came on May 31st, when French amateur Amédée Riou noticed a previously absent 14th-magnitude star in CCD images of the galaxy. Riou recorded it again the following evening. Independently, it was identified on June 1st by Thomas Griga in Schwerte, Germany. The next night it got picked up by Tom Reiland in Glenshaw, Pennsylvania, and by French observer Stéphane Lamotte Bailey, who noticed it on digital images taken through his 8-inch telescope.

By then it had also been spotted by the robotic Palomar Transient Factory and the Galaxy Zoo’s supernova hunters.

It’s still too early to tell if the supernova is brightening or fading, but it’s not apparent in images that Riou took on May 10th. Nor is there anything brighter than magnitude 19.5 in images acquired the night of May 30th with a 10-inch reflector at the University of Ljubljana in Slovenia.

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