Twinkle twinkle little new star

Tom Feilden
Science correspondent, Today

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image captionBefore and after: The image on the right shows the new supernova

Blink and you might miss it, but the canopy of the night sky looks ever so slightly different today. A single bright spark has been added to the millions of brilliant white dots illuminating the inky blackness.

Astronomers at Oxford University have spotted a new supernova, or exploding star, in the Pinwheel Galaxy M101 in the constellation Ursa Major a mere 21m light-years away.

Supernovae occur when giant stars reach the end of their life collapsing in on themselves and triggering an explosion that can briefly outshine an entire galaxy before fading away over a period of weeks or months.

The team, lead by Dr Mark Sullivan, made the discovery using a robotic telescope at the Palomar Observatory.

Dubbed PTF11kly the supernova is still getting brighter and should be visible with a good pair of binoculars in 10 days time.

"The most exciting thing," Dr Sullivan says, "is that this is what's known as a type 1a supernova - the kind we use to measure the expansion of the Universe. Seeing one explode so close by allows us to study these events in unprecedented detail."

The last time a supernova of this type occurred so close was 1972. Before that you have to go back to 1937, 1898 and 1572.

"Observing PTF11kly unfold should be a wild ride," says Professor Peter Nugent from the Lawrence Berkeley National laboratory. "It is an instant cosmic classic."

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