“On the weekend of September 3-4, 2011 – if you live in the northern hemisphere, and if you have patience and a good pair of binoculars – you’ll have an opportunity to witness what the ancients might have thought was a “new” star – a star that pops into view suddenly where no star was before. We today know it as an exploding star, or supernova. Astronomers believe it might become the brightest Type 1a supernova of the last 30 years.”
1. Which way do I look? The supernova – called Supernova 2011fe by astronomers – is located near the familiar Big Dipper pattern in our skies. At this time of year, the Big Dipper can be found in the northwestern sky in the hours after sunset.
2. What time of night? Don’t wait too late at night, or the Big Dipper will have set below your northwestern horizon.
3. How do I recognize the Big Dipper? The Big Dipper consists of seven fairly bright stars in a dipper pattern. Notice that the Dipper has two parts – a bowl and a handle.
4. How do I find the supernova in the Big Dipper? You want to be looking at the last two stars in the handle of the Dipper. These stars are Mizar and Alkaid. Pretend you are drawing an equilateral, or even-sided, triangle on the sky, using Mizar and Alkaid to mark two points of the triangle. The supernova will be located at the third point of your imaginary triangle.
5. Can I see the supernova with the eye alone? No. No one knows exactly how bright the supernova will get, but you’ll need binoculars or a small telescope to see it.
6. What will the supernova look like? The supernova will be seen in our sky superimposed on the Pinwheel Galaxy (M101). The supernova resides inside this galaxy. That’s why the chart above shows the site of the supernova as fuzzy. The galaxy is fuzzy. The supernova will look just like a star, like a pinpoint of light. The sky experts at Skyandtelescope.com say you’ll probably use the supernova to find the galaxy – not the galaxy to find the supernova. If your sky isn’t dark enough, both supernova and galaxy will be tough to spot.
7. What size binoculars do I need? You probably have a pair of 7X35 or 7X50 binoculars lying around your house. Will they be strong enough to see the supernova? The only way to know is to look. If you have larger binoculars, use them!
8. Can I use my telescope to see the supernova? Absolutely. Skyandtelescope.com says the supernova should be well within the limits for a 4-inch ‘scope – that’s a very small telescope.
9. Will I see the Pinwheel Galaxy behind the supernova? If you are looking in a very dark sky, you might see a wispy patch behind the supernova. That’s the galaxy! You’ll need a small telescope to see the galaxy well.
10. Can I see the supernova from my backyard? Maybe. A tip from veteran skywatchers: pack up a picnic supper, grab the family and head out to the country to see the supernova. State parks are a great place to set up. You’ll have a much better chance of seeing it, and you’ll enjoy the view so much more.
Astronomers say the supernova will remain visible with binoculars in our sky for about a week to 10 days – say, the first 10 days of September. Are they right? Only time will tell.