Tag Archives: citizen science; supernova; space

A locksmith and a supernova: unlocking the secrets of the ‘universe’

The discovery of a supernova

“What’s that?” the locksmith wondered, peeping through the telescope. He was in his observatory checking his new camera that was attached to the telescope. Somewhere far away some strange activities were occurring in the night skies. He carefully started observing again through his high-powered telescope. The distant star was acting very strange as if in some sort of celestial dance. Then a weird sort of energy emitted from it like a hiccup, and the star exploded like a firecracker. “Oh my God! Oh my God!” The locksmith muttered under his breath. It was just unbelievable; he had a feeling of euphoria. It slowly sunk in him he was the witness of a cosmic dance, the one that the global scientific community craved to witness. Victor Buso from Argentina had just watched an astonishing phenomenon: the birth of a supernova.

The birth of a supernova is, in fact, the violent death of a supergiant star. Supergiants are massive stars, thousands of times bigger than the Sun. A supergiant dies when it runs out of fuel, and the star starts collapsing in its inward centre. Positive protons and negative electrons start compressing each other due to high gravity, forcing electrons to penetrate the nucleus and converting the protons and electrons to neutrons. Within a day’s period, the created shockwave spreads outwards in a violent explosion, spreading stardust and matter in its wake. The intensity of a supernova’s explosion is equivalent to 1028-megaton bomb. The explosion jettisons matter and dust at 15,000 to 40,000 km per sec.

Buso’s discovery stepped beyond the explosion of a supernova. In the past, famous astronomers like John Flamsteed, Tycho Brahe or Johannes Kepler have discovered and catalogued supernova in different locations of our galaxy, but Buso is the first person who actually saw live the spectacle of the birthing of the supernova and captured it on his camera. After careful scrutiny, the scientific community reported this event in Nature. It occurred 65 million light-years away in a galaxy called NGC-613. Catalogued on 20th September 2016, Buso, the amateur astronomer, had slipped in the pages of history by presenting the scientific community with some missing pieces to supernovae and the puzzle of the Universe.

The science of a supernova

Humanity has always watched the skies with awe. The night skies are a canvas for myths, divination, fantasies, narratives, arts – and also a canvas for science. This is the final frontier where the mysteries of the origin of life, earth, humans, galaxies and practically everything in the Universe lie. Gaining access to these mysteries and deciphering them is perhaps humanity’s biggest quest for knowledge.

Supernovae explosions are rare. Only three have occurred in our galaxy, the Milky Way. In the 17th century, Astronomer Royal John Flamsteed catalogued a supernova explosion in Cassiopeia A or Cas A in the constellation Cassiopeia. The death of this star occurred 340 years ago, ten thousand light years from Earth. The intensity of the explosion leads to stardust and gas spreading in a circular ring at the speed of 50 million km per hour. Tycho Brahe discovered B Cas supernova in 1572. While Johannes Kepler discovered a supernova in the constellation Ophiuchus in 1604.
In addition to history, Buso’s discovery garnered him a place in Nature in collaboration with professional scientists. This collaboration and the associated data-sharing are examples of “citizen science” encouraged by NASA, as proclaimed in the organization’s webpage:

“You do not have to be a scientist, or even have a telescope, to hunt for supernovas. For example, in 2008 a teenager discovered a supernova. Then in January 2011, a 10-year-old girl from Canada discovered a supernova while looking at night sky images on her computer. The images, taken by an amateur astronomer, just happened to include a supernova. With some practice and the right equipment, you could find the next supernova!”

What better example could be that represents the relation between science, technology and society than this? Every data, every calculation, every observation matters. For the Universe is profound. In the ‘known Universe /Observable Universe’ itself there are at least two trillion galaxies. This is a great incentive for future Busos out there! May their tribe increase!

Anuradha Nayak

Doctoral Researcher at the Faculty of Law, University of Lapland. Teaches Space Law. Interested in narratives of posthuman philosophy and law, technology, outer space and the  human genome.


AC Fabian, ‘A blast from the past’ (2008) 320 Science 1167.

D Castelvecchi, ‘Amateur astronomer catches first glimpses of the birth of a supernova: Images taken in Argentina track earliest stages in stellar explosion.’ Nature (21 February 2018).
<https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-018-02331-4?utm_source=twt_nnc&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=naturenews&sf182688358=1> accessed 7 April 2018.

‘Explore the remains of a massive supernova’ National Geographic (11 January 2018) <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rQUMm_wWaCo> accessed 7 April 2018.

G Brumfiel, ‘Supernova mystery solved? : Sooty neutron star could lie at the heart of Cassiopeia A’ Nature (4 November 2009) <http://www.nature.com/news/2009/091104/full/news.2009.1063.html> accessed 7 April 2018.

H Fountain, ‘Two Trillion Galaxies, at the very least’ The New York Times (17 October 2016)
<https://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/18/science/two-trillion-galaxies-at-the-very-least.html> accessed 7 April 2018.

‘Supernovae: Learn more about what happens when stars explode.’ National Geographic (21 February 2018).
<https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/space/universe/supernovae/ > accessed 7 April 2018.

‘Supernovae’, NASA (6 March 2018) <https://imagine.gsfc.nasa.gov/science/objects/supernovae2.html> accessed 7 April 2018.

V Parry, ‘Eileen Collins: Space, the final frontier’ The Guardian (1 July 2005)
<https://www.theguardian.com/science/2005/jul/01/spaceexploration.research> accessed 7 April 2018.

‘What is a supernova?’ NASA (4 September 2013) <https://www.nasa.gov/audience/forstudents/5-8/featurs/nasa-knows/what-is-a-supernova.html> accessed 7 April 2018.