mountain profile Institute for Astronomy University of Hawaii

UH Astronomers, at the Right Place at the Right Time, Aid Significant Supernova Study

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For immediate release
December 19, 2011


Dr. Alan Stockton

Ms. Louise Good
Media Contact



Observing a “once-in-a-generation” supernova visible for just 10 minutes became the challenge for University of Hawaii astronomers Alan Stockton and Hsin-Yi Shih earlier this year.

On the morning of August 25, Stockton received an urgent email from UC Berkeley scientist Peter Nugent. Would Stockton, who was working at the Keck II Telescope on Mauna Kea that night, observe “a new nearby supernova” discovered the previous night by a telescope in California?

Stockton and Shih would have only 10 minutes to make the observations between the time when it grew dark enough to see the supernova and the time when it moved out of range of the Keck.

Waiting until the next night meant it would be visible for an even shorter time.

At 21 million light-years from Earth, the supernova (SN 2011fe) is considered very close by cosmic standards. The exploding star was also discovered very early, just after its light firstreached Earth, giving astronomers an exceptional opportunity to observe the evolution of its brightness and the spectra of its energy emitted over time.

Stockton and Shih fulfilled the request, and in return became co-authors on papers using the data, one of which is published in the December 15 issue of the journal Nature.

“I am glad we were able to assist in a discovery of this magnitude,” Stockton said. “It was clearly an opportunity that does not come along very often, and it was not a major imposition on our own program.”

Shih, a graduate student, added, “It was a thrill to participate in such a momentous study this early in my career.”

The discovery enables scientists for the first time to exclude red giant stars as the companion of the white dwarf star that explodes as a type Ia supernova, and gives a better idea of how these supernova explosions occur.

For more information and images:’s-companion-star/

Founded in 1967, the Institute for Astronomy at the University of Hawaii at Manoa conducts research into galaxies, cosmology, stars, planets, and the sun. Its faculty and staff are also involved in astronomy education, deep space missions, and in the development and management of the observatories on Haleakala and Mauna Kea.

Established in 1907 and fully accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, the University of Hawaii is the state's sole public system of higher education. The UH System provides an array of undergraduate, graduate, and professional degrees and community programs on 10 campuses and through educational, training, and research centers across the state. UH enrolls more than 50,000 students from Hawaii, the U.S. mainland, and around the world.