Eliot Herman used the Utah Remote Desert Observatories to capture this image of the new supernova in M101 – the Pinwheel Galaxy – just hours after its discovery on May 19, 2023. See the bright spot by the yellow arrowhead? This is the closest supernova to us in more than a decade. Eliot commented: “There will be many weeks to watch this one evolve.”
A new, close supernova
A new supernova in the Pinwheel Galaxy, aka M101, is the closest to Earth in a decade. Amateur astronomer Koichi Itagaki discovered it on May 19, 2023. The supernova should continue to brighten for a few days. It should remain visible to amateur astronomers with backyard telescopes for a few months. The supernova – named 2023ixf – lies in the direction of the constellation Ursa Major, near the end of the handle of the Big Dipper.
The last supernova in M101 was in 2011. Andy Howell, an astronomer at the University of California, Santa Barbara, explained on Twitter that the 2011 explosion resulted from a white dwarf that underwent a thermonuclear supernova. Andy said that the new supernova is most likely from a different cause, from a core collapse of a massive star at the end of its life. While observers won’t be able to see this supernova with the unaided eye, amateurs should be able to catch it backyard telescopes. As Andy said: "This new supernova will increase in brightness over the coming days. You should be able to see it with backyard telescopes, for a few months, though it will just be a point of light."
Star chart for Ursa Major. M101 is in red on the left near the Big Dipper’s handle. Image via Wikimedia Commons/ IAU/ Sky and Telescope.
How close is the closest in a decade?
M101 is 21 million light-years away. So even though it just appeared to us on Earth Friday, it occurred 21 million years ago. And even though it’s the closest in a decade, it’s still quite far away. In fact, for a supernova to have an effect on Earth, it would have to be within 50 light-years of our planet. You can rest assured that the new supernova won’t harm Earth. Instead, we get to watch a relatively rare event as scientists gather information on the new supernova.
Supernova photo galery
Eliot Herman of Tucson, Arizona, using the Utah Remote Observatory, made this collage illustrating the evolution of Supernova 2023ixf on May 22, 2023. Eliot wrote: “Supernova 2023ixf in M101 is rising in brightness in the three days since its discovery. Supernova 2023ixf was discovered on May 19th, and these images are a series showing how its brightness is rising from day one through three after discovery. All images were captured with iTelescope T68 and are 11 x 90 sec. (color) and 7 x 120 sec iTelescope T11.” As Eliot reflected upon this event, he told us in an e-mail: “I hope the denizens of nearby M101 planets, ducked 21 million years ago, they might have gone the way of the dinosaurs… we will never know, but it is sobering to think every time we see fireworks, there might be mass extinctions in its wake, all a roll of the cosmic dice.”
For the supernova images, each photographer chooses their own orientation. Therefore, you can see the supernova in various locations, such as in the 2, 11, 5, or 8 o’clock positions, for example. That’s because there is no standard way to capture a galaxy (there’s no “up” in space).
Paul Macklin in Bloomington, Indiana, made this 4-day comparison of Supernova 2023ixf before its discovery and after. Paul wrote: “This image captures the new supernova SN 2023ixf in Messier 101, just before and after its appearance, from an Indiana backyard. On May 16, 2023, the supernova was not visible in a 5 hour integrated exposure. On May 20th, it was clear as a brilliant white star even in 3-minute exposures. I tried to process and crop both ‘before’ and ‘after’ as similarly as possible. The left image is 5 hours of 3-min exposures; the right is 6 hours of 3-min exposures; both nights without filter.” Orlando Montes in Charles City, Iowa, captured this telescopic image of galaxy Messier 101 on May 19, 2023, showing the then newly discovered supernova 2023ixf. Orlando wrote: “Coincidentally, I was capturing M101 the very same night that the supernova was discovered!” Orlando Montes in Charles City, Iowa, captured this telescopic image of galaxy Messier 101 on May 19, 2023, showing the then newly discovered supernova 2023ixf. Orlando wrote: “Coincidentally, I was capturing M101 the very same night that the supernova was discovered!”