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Amateur Utah astronomer makes a third supernova discovery

Published May 17, 2017 9:04 am

Astronomy • Nocturnal amateur photographs an explosive galactic discovery — his third.
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Amateur astronomer Patrick Wiggins knew he had discovered something early Sunday morning.

But what was it?

Comparing photos he had taken of the Fireworks Galaxy earlier in the evening, Wiggins, who lives in the Tooele area, noticed a bright spot that wasn't visible in older pictures.

He figured it could be a comet, perhaps an asteroid, or quite likely just a flaw in his image. Unsure, he sent some messages to the astronomy community to see whether anyone had seen the same thing.

"I sat back and waited for the ridicule — 'Hey, stupid!' " Wiggins said Tuesday in a telephone interview. "But it turns out, there was something there."

Within hours, international experts confirmed that Wiggins had come across a Type II supernova, which occurs when a star much larger than the sun runs out of nuclear fuel and triggers a massive explosion. The supernova Wiggins found, called SN 2017eaw, is more than 22 million light-years from Earth — meaning the explosion occurred more than 22 million years ago.

It's an exceedingly rare find, especially for a self-funded amateur. But Wiggins has come across three supernovae in recent years.

Wiggins, who describes himself as nocturnal, said persistence has been key to his success. Every clear night since 2011 — about 1,051 of them — he has gone to his telescope and snapped pictures of the night sky. At the end of the night, he usually has 600 new images covering dozens of galaxies, which can then be compared using a computer program with photos he took of the same galaxies several years ago.

"Yes, it's boring," he said. "But it's got to be done."

Wiggins had three more pictures to review Sunday at about 2 a.m., when he came across the bright anomaly in the Fireworks Galaxy.

But after sending those solar flares to his fellow astronomers, Wiggins got nervous: Would someone else be able to officially report it online before he could?

And take the credit?

He also realized, because it had been two years since his last supernova discovery, that he didn't have access to the international clearinghouse where such discoveries are reported.

Luckily, a German astronomer he knew volunteered to file the report for him, noting that it was Wiggins who had actually made the discovery. Just before sunrise, Wiggins went to bed. When he awoke later Sunday, he saw emails trickling in from professional and amateur astronomers from around the world, congratulating him and confirming that he had found a supernova.


The majority of supernova discoveries are made by professional astronomers with significant funding and sophisticated equipment, Wiggins said. And while Wiggins works part time as an astronomy outreach educator for the University of Utah's astronomy department, he considers himself a self-funded hobbyist.

"For whatever reason, they didn't catch this one," he said of the professionals. "And it was bright."

The Salt Lake Astronomical Society is hosting a public star party Saturday evening at the Stansbury Park Observatory Complex in Tooele County, where attendees can use the society's telescopes and try to spot Wiggins' supernova. Details are available at slas.us.


Twitter: @lramseth






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