Wow at Pine Mountain: UO students zoom in on a dying star

Image of the supernova taken with a telescope at Pine Mountain Observatory

Memorial Day weekend was special for a small group of UO undergraduate students. On May 28, they spotted an exploding dying star in a galaxy 35 million light years away while on duty at the UO's Pine Mountain Observatory near Bend.

The students' observation — done with a new telescope built with donor funding — helped the global scientific community confirm the supernova, which had been detected by astronomers in Australia just a few hours earlier. The UO students saw the supernova shortly after public viewing of the night sky had concluded and the observatory's new 14-inch telescope was pointed at a “nearby” galaxy named M66.

"We got our first picture of M66 just as the public was leaving," said physics major Lindsey Oberhelman of San Jose, California. "When we saw the picture come up on the monitor and saw the supernova clearly visible, it was extremely exciting. Five of us were crammed into the tiny control room. We were all a mixture of excited that the picture was so good and stunned that we had actually done it on our second observing run. None of us students had done any observing before."

NASA reported that the dying star was some 8 to 50 times the mass of the sun.

A night earlier, bad weather had nixed efforts to explore that very galaxy, which had been photographed previously by the Hubble Space Telescope. The students in Scott Fisher's astrophysics research group had chosen to focus on M66 at the urging of group member Charity Woodrum, a sophomore from Myrtle Creek, Oregon, who was days away from starting a 10-week summer internship with NASA.

"We woke up with news that a possible supernova went off in the same exact galaxy we were trying to image," Woodrum said. "It was a goal of mine to image at least one supernova within the two years I have with the Robbins telescope. I thought it was an improbable goal. I definitely didn't expect to see one in our first science run."

Also present was physics undergraduate major Taylor Contreras of Bend, Oregon.

The sighting of the supernova came during the first use of the Robbins telescope for real science, said Fisher, a lecturer and public outreach coordinator in the Department of Physics. "The student team and I have been commissioning the system — that is, learning to use it since early this calendar year. We started observing the sky with the system in May, so it was very exciting to have a chance prove its capabilities so soon."

The UO group missed by just hours being the first to witness the supernova.

"I couldn't believe how close we were to being the first to view it, and I realized that it was a reality that our robotic telescope could make incredible discoveries like this," said Contreras, who is minoring in computer information science.

The data obtained by the students will be added to a growing database of observations that are being made with telescopes around the world, he said. The UO team acquired data in four different filters, which were combined into a color image (shown above). In the image, the supernova is the small, white light source on the left edge of the spiral looking galaxy.

"In the separate pictures we took, you can't see the supernova, so we had to wait until the next week to see it when the pictures were stacked," Contreras said. "It was very exciting to know that it was in the picture, and we knew exactly how to get it later."

The Robbins telescope — named after donor Kenneth Robbins — is fitted with a 14-inch internal mirror. It was built with mostly off-the-shelf components and customized with UO staff- and student-designed hardware and software both inside and outside the observatory's dome, which also is named after Robbins.

The telescope is the smallest of four at the facility. "Even though it is small, it is mighty," Fisher said. "It is by a large margin the most modern telescope at Pine Mountain, and it is a completely state-of-the-art system.

Fisher has been working to bring new life to the Pine Mountain Observatory for use as an undergraduate research and science outreach facility. Eventually, he said, the Robbins telescope will be remotely operational from a control room in Willamette Hall.

"Our success spotting the supernova is the first step of what we hope will be a long and fruitful research journey for our undergraduates," he said. "In addition to making target-of-opportunity observations, we are also starting up long-term research projects with collaborators at large observatories and universities in Hawaii and Chile where we will observe targets that are known to vary in brightness. All of these projects are aimed directly at our undergraduate student population."

The observatory, owned by the UO, is located 26 miles southeast of Bend and has been in operation since 1967.

During the summer, through the end of September, visitors are welcome on Friday and Saturday evenings. Programs begin at 9 p.m. through mid summer, when start times move to 8:30 p.m. as darkness comes earlier. A $5 donation is suggested.