June 6, 2020

Life in the Astro-Blogosphere: On Vigilance and the One That Got Away

Look! There it is!

Credit-The Virtual Star Party.

Now the story can be told.

You just never know when the universe is going to dangle a discovery right in front of your eyes. We amateur astronomers often pride ourselves on being “visual athletes,” patient steely-eyed observers who let little slip by us.

But we too can fall into the trap of routine. Just such a discovery was ours to lose a few weeks ago during the weekly Virtual Star Party held every Sunday night hosted by CosmoQuest and Universe Today on Google+. The tale has long since been told, how we were actually imaging the galaxy M82 just days before the discovery of what would become known as SN 2014J, the brightest and closest galactic supernovae in decades.

We scrambled back to review the video days later after the discovery broke. And there it was, the universe taunting us with a glittering +11th magnitude star that shouldn’t be there.  I’ll admit, we were in attendance that moonlit evening, but were pre-occupied with reconfiguring our telescope and camera to bring a wide-field view of the Moon into the show. I know, the universe doesn’t care about excuses. Still, we were listening in, as fellow Star Party commentators mentioned that “M82 isn’t the frequent producer of supernovae…”

Maybe we would’ve noted the supernova shining like an out of place beacon embedded in the edge on galaxy had our head been turned screenward, maybe not. I know there’s always a certain reluctance to “cry wolf” at a potential novae or comet discovery… no one wants to be mistaken, and astronomers are no different than the rest of us when it comes to peer pressure.

Still, all it would have taken is a quick comparison to an archived image of M82 on Wikipedia to cinch it. I can imagine how the night might’ve gone down;

“Dude, that’s a supernova!”

“Can’t be, it’s got to be a foreground star…”

“No, LOOK at these comparison images!”

“Hmmm… I wonder if Thad or Nicole (Thad Szabo and Nicole Guggliucci are astronomers frequently featured on the Virtual Star Party) are awake?”

“We gotta get this out through CBAT (the Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams) to stake a claim…”

“I’ll put the coffee on…”

And by morning, the story would’ve broke. Such a find would’ve pushed the Virtual Star Party into the public spotlight.

Its happened before. Alan Hale just happened to be observing the globular cluster Messier 70 when he noticed a fuzzy patch that wasn’t supposed to be there which would become comet Hale-Bopp. Another break came when, after decade’s worth of searching, the discovery and impact of comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 into Jupiter thrust David Levy into the spotlight. And more than once, amateurs have been on hand to witness the eruption of a cataclysmic variable star or new supernovae.

We chalk it up as a lesson from the universe. It’s worth paying attention to the subtleties both in life and in observing, and take those lessons to heart and move on. And while many discoveries are the result of careful planning and persistence, many are serendipitous, which is often just a big ten cent word for plain old dumb luck. And while it’s not up to the universe to perform just for you, you can stack the odds in your favor by always paying attention.

What’s that fuzzy smudge near that nebula? Was that a flash just now on the dark side of the Moon? Was that star there last night? What new discovery is beckoning to the alert observer in the sky over your suburban neighborhood tonight?

Be sure to stay vigilant!


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