One of the special joys of getting out under a dark rural sky this time of year is seeing the gossamer beauty of the surprisingly expansive star cluster called Melotte 111, also known as the Coma star cluster. Mel 111 makes up a large part of the constellation Coma Berenices, “Berenice’s Hair”. This constellation, which entertains the North Galactic Pole as well as a gaggle of galaxies, can be found about midway between Denebola (some call the Coma star cluster the end of the “tail” of Leo the Lion) and Arcturus, as well as midway between Spica and the Big Dipper. Coma Berenices is transiting the meridian this week as evening twilight ends. At a distance of just 284 light years, the Coma star cluster is the third nearest star cluster to us, surpassed only by the open cluster remnant Collinder 285—the Ursa Major association (80 ly)—and the Hyades (153 ly).
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.
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