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A bright supernova discovered only six weeks ago in a nearby galaxy is provoking new questions about the exploding stars that scientists use as their main yardstick for measuring the Universe. (See this earlier post about SN 2014J.)

SN2014J-350

Credit: W. Zheng and A. Filippenko (UC Berkeley)

When The Cosmos author Alex Filippenko’s research team at UC Berkeley looked for the supernova in data collected by the Katzman Automatic Imaging Telescope (KAIT) at Lick Observatory, they discovered that the robotic telescope had actually taken a photo of it 37 hours after it appeared, unnoticed, on January 14.

Combining this observation with another chance observation by a Japanese amateur astronomer, Filippenko’s team was able to calculate that SN 2014J had unusual characteristics – it brightened faster than expected for a Type Ia supernova and, even more intriguing, it exhibited the same unexpected, rapid brightening as another supernova that KAIT discovered and imaged last year (SN 2013dy).

Alex Filippenko reports: “Now, two of the three most recent and best-observed Type Ia supernovae are weird, giving us new clues to how stars explode. This may be teaching us something general about Type Ia supernovae that theorists need to understand. Maybe what we think of as ‘normal’ behavior for these supernovae is actually unusual, and this weird behavior is the new normal.”

A paper describing the SN 2014J observations was posted online this week by The Astrophysical Journal Letters and will appear in the March 1 print issue.

Links: UC Berkeley press release (including further background on Type Ia supernovae); the research paper in ApJL.

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