High school teachers making observations with the research telescopes at Kitt Peak National Observatory as part of an intensive professional development workshop obtained some of the earliest multicolor imaging and spectra of a newly exploded massive star in a nearby galaxy.
A new supernova was reported in the Whirlpool Galaxy (M51) by German amateur astronomer Wolfgang Kloehr on June 28. The discovery was confirmed on June 30 by the Katzman Automatic Imaging Telescope at Lick Observatory, which found it to be shining at a magnitude of 13.5; the supernova was reported to the astronomical community by IAU Circular 8553 and given the designation SN 2005 CS.
Eighteen teachers from the Teacher Leaders in Research Based Science Education (TLRBSE) program conducted by the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO) in Tucson, AZ, happened to be on Kitt Peak for five nights, as part of the program’s fifth annual two-week summer workshop. In the process of learning how to take telescope images in multiple colors at the WIYN 0.9-meter telescope on June 30, the TLRBSE teachers selected M51 as a target and took images of the galaxy in four filters.
“These images were taken prior to the arrival of the IAU circular announcing the discovery, and thus are some of the earliest images of the supernova taken with broadband filters,” said Dr. Stephen Pompea, manager of science education at NOAO. “This should turn out to be a very valuable data set.”
M51 was chosen by the teachers because it is a classic spiral galaxy available high in the early evening sky. “The teachers could barely contain their excitement when they realized that they happened to be among the first researchers to take science-quality images of the new supernova,” said TLRBSE project manager Dr. Katy Garmany. “One of the key elements of the TLRBSE program is training the teachers to think and work like research astronomers, and then let them go do it, but this certainly exceeds all of our hopes and expectations.”
The TLRBSE teachers made further images of M51 after the discovery was announced using the WIYN 0.9-meter (and obtained spectroscopic data with the Kitt Peak 2.1-meter telescope), producing an image (marked with the location of the new supernova) that is available above.
A later IAU circular reported that spectra taken June 30 suggest that the object appears to be a fresh Type II supernova, which are produced when the iron core of a single massive star collapses and rapidly implodes. Subsequent circulars announced that the progenitor star that produced the supernova has been identified, a rare situation for supernovae discovered in distant galaxies like M51 (which is located 37 million light-years from Earth in the constellation Canes Venatici, near the handle of the Big Dipper.) This identification will allow astronomers to learn more about the types of stars that end their lives as supernovae.
In the last decade, NOAO has trained 132 teachers to do high-quality astronomical research under the TLRBSE program and its precursor. These teachers received additional training on helping students learn to use telescopes, interpret astronomical images, and conduct research of their own. There are 10 active astronomy research programs being conducted by these teachers and their students nationwide, using data obtained at Kitt Peak and by space telescopes such as the Spitzer Space Telescope. For more information about the program, see the project’s Web site.
2005 TLRBSE Teacher Participants:
|Teacher Name||School Name||Location|
|John Blackwell||Phillips Exeter Academy||Exeter, NH|
|Constance Brown||McEwen High School||McEwen, TN|
|Michael Brown||Montgomery Central High||Cunningham, TN|
|Joseph Ciotti||Windward Community College||Kaneohe, HI|
|Mary Dunn||Messalonskee Middle School||Oakland, ME|
|Cynthia Gould||South East School||Leomisnter, MA|
|Dorian Janney||Watkins Mill High School||Gaithersburg, MD|
|Brad Kapsner||Cathedral High School||St. Cloud, MN|
|Linda Martin||Salem Academy||Winston-Salem, NC|
|Chris Martin||Howenstine Magnet School||Tucson, AZ|
|Glenn Reagan||Cordova High School||Rancho Cordova, CA|
|Roy Riegel||Pinkerton Academy||Derry, NH|
|Thomas Rutherford||Sullivan South High School||Kingsport, TN|
|Steve Salkovics||Maria Carillo High School||Santa Rosa, CA|
|Phillip Scott||McAlester Public School||McAlester, OK|
|Rhonda Spidell||Albuquerque Academy||Albuquerque, NM|
|Ruth Starkins||Montville Township High School||Montville, NJ|
|Marcia Talkmitt||Slaton High School||Slaton, TX|
Located 55 miles southwest of Tucson, AZ, Kitt Peak National Observatory is part of NOAO, which is operated by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA) Inc., under a cooperative agreement with the National Science Foundation.