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How many supernovas have happened in history?

Date: Thu Jan 23 08:55:50 1997
Posted by: Lauren Fishman
Grade level: 4-6
School/Organization: Harmony Middle
City: Overland Park State/Province: KS
Country: USA
Area of science: Astronomy


How many supernovas have happened in history?

Well, this is a tough one! There are several ways to interpret your question, but I'll think of it this way: how many supernovae have occurred that we know about?

Before the invention of the telescope, not too many supernovae were known. The first recorded supernova was in 1054. It was observed by the Chinese, and there is evidence it was seen by American Indians and some other western cultures as well. This was a very bright supernova, easily visible in full daylight, and today can be seen as the Crab Nebula, one of the most studied objects in the sky. The next was in 1066, this time only the Chinese appear to have observed it. The next recorded one was in 1181, again by the Chinese.

The great astronomer Tycho studied another one in 1572, and another great astronomer named Kepler observed one in 1604. The next one I could find in my research was in 1885, and occurred in the nearby Andromeda Galaxy. This was the first supernova ever seen outside our own Galaxy. The last naked eye supernova was 1987A, which occurred in a satellite galaxy to the Milky Way.

Since the invention of the telescope, there have been more supernovae seen every year. Last year, for example, 82 were found! I could not find an exact number, but it seems safe to say that over a thousand supernovae have been seen, and probably many more. Since we don't know just when and where they may occur, they are almost always discovered by accident. Recently, some telescopes have been built that automatically search the skies for anything that changes from night to night. They find asteroids, comets, variable stars, and the occasional supernova.

There has not been a supernova seen in our own Milky Way galaxy for hundreds of years. When is the next one? No one knows. There are many good candidate stars for explosion, such as Betelgeuse in Orion, or Eta Carina (check out the Hubble Space Telescope Eta Carina page for lots of pictures and info!). When these stars blow, it will be quite a show!

There is a vast amount of information about supernovae on the web. My web page has a good starting point, with pictures and descriptions of supernova 1987A and links to other sites as well.

©2008 Phil Plait. All Rights Reserved.

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