Now Everyone Can Help Astronomers Hunt Down Supernovae

The crab nebula is the remnant of a supernova that exploded in 1054. NASA/ESA/HST

The Australian National University has issued a singular call to arms: Help astronomers discover more supernovae. The goal is as simple as it is profound. Supernovae are used as cosmic milestones and by measuring their distances, researchers hope to understand the accelerated expansion of the universe.

The project is part of the citizen science portal Zooniverse. People interested in the subject will be asked to look at old and new images from the SkyMapper Transient Survey in the hopes to spot differences. A supernova can outshine its host galaxy for a few weeks.

Researchers are particularly interested in Type Ia supernovae. These are formed in a binary system when a white dwarf steals so much material from a companion that it collapses under its own mass. These objects always have the same true luminosity, and by measuring how bright they appear to us, astronomers can work out how far they are.

This is why they are called “standard candles”. By knowing the distance, scientists can better understand where galaxies are located in the cosmos and even answer some fundamental questions about the universe that are yet to be settled.

“Using exploding stars as markers all across the Universe, we can measure how the Universe is growing and what it’s doing,” said Brad Tucker from the ANU Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics in a statement. “We can then use that information to better understand dark energy, the cause of the Universe’s acceleration.”

Dark energy is the mysterious force that's causing the universe to expand. We don’t know what it is (it's yet to be confirmed) and we only see its effects, namely the accelerated expansion of the cosmos, so we need to get as many supernovae measured as possible.

There are about three supernovae per galaxy per century and they stay in their brightest phase for just a handful of weeks. However, there are billions of galaxies out there. The easier option is an automatic survey that takes pictures, but there are too many images (thousands every month) for any single group of scientists to go through – that’s why they need your help.

“Thousands of passionate people can achieve things that would take scientists working alone years to do,” Tucker added. “With the power of the people, we can check these images in minutes and get another telescope to follow up.”

There are many different transient events that might be recorded by SkyMapper, beyond Type Ia supernovae. And you can still do it for the glory.

“The first people who identify an object that turns out to be a supernova will be publicly recognized as co-discoverers,” said Anais Möller, also from ANU.

What are you waiting for? Astronomy needs you!

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