Brightest Event Ever Observed

On June 14, 2015, perhaps the intrinsically brightest event ever recorded was detected at or near the center of the obscure galaxy APMUKS(BJ) B215839.70−615403.9 in the southern constellation Indus, at a luminosity distance of about 3.8 billion light years.

ASASSN-15lh (All–Sky Automated Survey for SuperNovae), also designated SN 2015L, is located at α2000=22h02m15.45s, δ2000=-61° 39′ 34.6″ and is thought to be a super-luminous supernova—sometimes called a hypernova—but other interpretations are still in play.

Let’s put the brightness of SN 2015L in context.  Peaking at an absolute visual magnitude of -24.925 (which would be its apparent visual magnitude at the standard distance of 10 parsecs), SN 2015L would shine as bright as the Sun in our sky if it were 14 light years away—about the distance to van Maanen’s Star, the nearest solitary white dwarf.  SN 2015L would be as bright as the full moon if it were at a distance of 8,921 light years.  SN 2015L would be as bright as the planet Venus if it were at a distance of 333,000 light years.  Since the visible part of our galaxy is only about 100,000 ly across, had this supernova occurred anywhere in our galaxy, it would have been brighter than Venus.  If SN 2015L had occurred in M31, the Andromeda Galaxy, 2.5 million light years away, it would take its place (albeit temporarily) as the third brightest star in the night sky (-0.47m), after Sirius (-1.44m) and Canopus (-0.62m), but brighter than Alpha Centauri (-0.27m) and Arcturus (-0.05m).

The Open Supernova Catalog (Guillochon et al. 2017) lists three events that were possibly intrinsically brighter than SN 2015L.  Two events were afterglows of gamma ray bursts GRB 81007 and GRB 30329: SN 2008hw at -25.014m and SN 2003dh at -26.823m, respectively.  And the other event was the first supernova detected by the Gaia astrometric spacecraft, Gaia 14aaa, 500 Mly distant, shining perhaps as brightly as -27.1m.

References
Chatzopoulos E., Wheeler J. C., Vinko J., et al., 2016, ApJ, 828, 94
Dong S., Shappee B. J., Prieto J. L., Jha S. W., et al., 2016, Science, 351, 257
Guillochon J., Parrent J., Kelley L. Z., Margutti R., 2017, ApJ, 835, 64

Bonner Durchmusterung und Gaia

As our civilization and technology continue to evolve, it seems we take far too much for granted.  We neglect to consider how incredibly hard people used to work years ago to achieve results we today would pass off as almost trivial.  But history has many lessons to teach us, if only we would listen.

As an example, Prussian astronomer Friedrich Wilhelm August Argelander (1799-1875) at the age of 60 began publishing the most comprehensive star catalogue and atlas ever compiled, as of that date.  From 1852 to 1859, Argelander and his assistants carefully and accurately recorded the position and brightness of over 324,000 stars using a 3-inch (!) telescope in Bonn, Germany.  Employing the Earth’s rotation, star positions were measured as each star drifted across the eyepiece reticle in the stationary meridian telescope by carefully recording when each star crossed the line, and where along the line the crossing point was.

Stars Transiting in a Meridian Telescope

One person observed through the telescope and called off the star’s brightness as each star crossed the line, noting the exact position along the reticle on a pad with a cardboard template so that the numbers could be written down without looking away from the telescope.  A second person, the recorder, noted the exact time of reticle crossing and the brightness called out by the observer.  In this way, two people were able to record the position and brightness of every star.

Each star was observed at least twice so that any errors could be detected and corrected.  In some areas of the Milky Way, as many as 30 stars would cross the reticle each minute.  What stamina and dedication it must have taken Argelander and his staff to make over 700,000 observations in just seven years!  Argelander’s catalogue is called the Bonner Durchmusterung and is still used by astronomers even today.  It was the last major star catalogue to be produced without the aid of photography.

Like Argelander’s small meridian telescope, the European Space Agency’s Gaia astrometric space observatory is currently measuring tens of thousands of stars each minute (down to mv = 20) as they transit across a large CCD array—the modern day equivalent of an eyepiece reticle.  But instead of utilizing the Earth’s rotation period relative to the background stars of 23h56m04s, Gaia’s twin telescopes separated by exactly 106.5° sweep across the stars as Gaia rotates once every six hours.  A slight precession in Gaia’s orientation ensures that the field of view is shifted so that there is only a little overlap during the next six-hour rotation.

When Gaia completes its ongoing mission, it will have measured the positions, distances, and 3D space motions of around a billion stars, not just twice but 70 times!

Though electronic computers do most of the work these days, someone still has to program them.  Some 450 scientists and software experts are immersed in the challenging task of converting raw data into scientifically useful information.

I’d like to conclude this entry with a quotation from Albert Einstein (1879-1955), who was born and died exactly 80 years after Argelander.

Many times a day I realize how much of my outer and inner life is built upon the labors of my fellowmen, both living and dead, and how earnestly I must exert myself in order to give as much as I have received.

I love that quote.  Words to live by.