Gaia spacecraft spots its first supernova

ESA’s galaxy mapper pinpoints stellar explosion

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An artist’s impression of a Type Ia supernova, the kind discovered by Gaia.

Image credit: ESA/ATG medialab/C. Carreau

Its ambitious goal is to map the positions and movements of one billion stars in the Milk Way. But during one of it regular night sky surveys, ESA’s Gaia spacecraft stumbled upon an unexpected celestial event – a supernova explosion in a galaxy 500 million lightyears from our own.

The event, Gaia14aaa, was revealed when astronomers spotted a sudden peak in brightness between two observations taken a month apart by the space scope – Gaia takes regular scans of the entire night sky in order to pinpoint the billion stars needed to complete its map of the Milky Way.

Dr Simon Hodgkin is a member of Gaia’s Science Alert Team, “This kind of repeated survey comes in handy for studying the changeable nature of the sky,” he said.

“As Gaia goes back to each patch of the sky over and over, we have a chance to spot thousands of ‘guest stars’ on the celestial tapestry.

“These transient sources can be signposts to some of the most powerful phenomena in the Universe, like this supernova.”

The Gaia team was able to confirm that the spike of light they detected was in fact a supernova and not an outburst from a supermassive black hole as the position of the point of light was slightly to the edge of the galaxy’s centre. – the location of its black hole.  


 

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