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To Search For A New Supernova, Build A New Camera

A blast from the past: Using data from four telescopes, <a href="http://www.nasa.gov/multimedia/imagegallery/image_feature_2173.html#.VHzIM9LF-E5">NASA created this image</a> of the first documented sighting of a supernova, made by Chinese astronomers in 185 A.D.
NASA/JPL-Caltech/B. Williams
A blast from the past: Using data from four telescopes, NASA created this image of the first documented sighting of a supernova, made by Chinese astronomers in 185 A.D.

The search for the massive star explosions called supernovae is about to get a big boost. Astronomers at Caltech in Pasadena are building a new camera that will let them survey the entire night sky in three nights.

The problem with looking for supernovae is you can't really be sure when and where to look for them. Most telescope cameras can only capture a small patch of sky at a time. But the new camera, to be mounted on a telescope at the Palomar Observatory, has a much larger field of view.

Chinese astronomers recorded seeing the first supernova in 185 A.D. Since then, about 6,500 more have been discovered (for an up-to-date list, look here).

You might think that 6,500 supernovae would give astronomers plenty to chew on, but Caltech astronomer Shrinivas Kulkarni says you can't have too many.

"The more you find, there's always the chance you'll find something exotic," Kulkarni says.

He obtained a $9 million grant from the National Science Foundation to design and build the new camera, which will run autonomously along with the telescope.

"This project was designed to become like an industrial factory for cosmic discoveries," Kulkarni says.

The researchers will be looking for young supernovae, hoping to capture the unique data contained in light from very recent explosions.

A real problem Kulkarni anticipates is making sense of the mountain of data the camera will produce. He's hoping a new generation of computer programmers will be able to come up with good algorithms to help search for interesting events.

The good news is, you don't have to be an expert astronomer to participate in the search. All it requires is that you understand data, be a clear thinker, have programming skills — and who knows?

"A little bit of luck, and you may make a discovery," Kulkarni says. He plans to invite undergraduates to join the project, but he's open to hearing from others — maybe even a programming genius reading this post.

"They can call me," Kulkarni says. "I can make them famous.

The new camera should be ready for action in 2017.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Joe Palca is a science correspondent for NPR. Since joining NPR in 1992, Palca has covered a range of science topics — everything from biomedical research to astronomy. He is currently focused on the eponymous series, "Joe's Big Idea." Stories in the series explore the minds and motivations of scientists and inventors. Palca is also the founder of NPR Scicommers – A science communication collective.
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