Gemini North takes to the skies with a dazzling image of the supernova in the Pinwheel Galaxy

By | June 7, 2023

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Gemini North, part of the Gemini International Observatory operated by NSF’s NOIRLab, has returned to observing the night sky after repairs and refurbishment of its primary mirror. The telescope’s debut observation captured the supernova dubbed SN 2023ixf, which was discovered May 19 by Japanese astronomer Koichi Itagaki. This dazzling point of light, the closest supernova seen in the last five years, is located along one of the spiral arms of the Pinwheel Galaxy (Messier 101). Credits: International Gemini Observatory/NOIRLab/NSF/AURA Image Processing: M. Rodriguez (Gemini Observatory/NSF’s NOIRLab), J. Miller (Gemini Observatory/NSF’s NOIRLab), M. Zamani (NSF’s NOIRLab) and D. de Martin (NSF’s NOIRLab)

The Gemini North telescope, one half of the Gemini International Observatory operated by NSF’s NOIRLab, returned from a seven-month hiatus with literally a bang, as it captured the spectacular aftermath of a supernova, a massive star that exploded in the large, face to face, Pinwheel Galaxy Spiral (Messier 101). The supernova, designated SN 2023ixf (bottom left), was discovered May 19 by amateur astronomer Koichi Itagaki.

Since its discovery, observers from around the world have turned their telescopes towards Messier 101 to get a glimpse of the burst of light. In the coming months, Gemini North will allow astronomers to study how supernova light fades and how its spectrum evolves over time, helping astronomers better understand the physics of such explosions.

The appearance of SN 2023ixf is quite fortuitous for the Gemini North telescope, which returned to observing with its primary mirror repaired and recoated after sustaining damage in late 2022. The damage was limited to a small region outside of the light gathering area of ​​the mirror. However, repairs were carefully planned and completed to ensure Gemini North could safely return to normal operations. This process took about seven months and in May 2023 the mirror was repainted and reinstalled and the control systems powered up and tested.

The success of the mirror repair is highlighted in this beautiful image of Messier 101 and SN 2023ixf. Not only is Gemini North a powerful discovery tool, with its 8-meter mirror and exceptional spectroscopic capabilities, but it is also located in a prime observation point in the Northern Hemisphere, at Maunakea in Hawaii, offering an exceptional view of Messier 101 .

The NOIRLab/Gemini team poses with the primary mirror just covered. The damaged area is visible on the left in the photo. It is outside the light-gathering area for observations. Credit: Gemini International Observatory/NOIRLab/NSF/AURA/J. pollard

The Pinwheel Galaxy is located about 21 million light-years from Earth in the direction of the constellation Ursa Major and is one of the most photographed galaxies in the night sky. Its face-to-Earth orientation offers an unobstructed view of its 170,000 light-year diameter and allows observers to marvel at its nearly trillion stars. Dotted along its swirling spiral arms are large regions of star-forming nebulae, indicated by the bright pockets of pink light. Young, hot blue stars also populate the galaxy, laced with dark streaks of dust that help feed the newborn stars.

In the image above, processed with the help of the DRAGONS software system, SN 2023ixf can be identified in one of the spiral arms of the galaxy as an exceptionally bright blue star. Follow-up observations of SN 2023ixf by amateur and professional astronomers indicate that it is a type II supernova. This is the closest supernova discovered in the last five years and the second supernova to occur at Messier 101 in the last 15 years, following a Type I supernova observed in 2011.

A type II supernova occurs when a massive star, 850 times the mass of the sun, runs out of nuclear fuel, collapses in on itself, and explodes in a violent eruption of energy and matter. Typically, these events are observed in the arms of spiral galaxies where there are populations of young and massive stars necessary for a type II supernova to occur. During the collapse of the star, the outer core collapses inward under gravity at an incredible speed of up to 250 million kilometers per hour, or 23% of the speed of light. In a quick ten-second burst, the blast releases the same amount of energy the sun did during its 10 billion-year life.

Observing type II supernovae provides astronomers with insight into the evolution of massive stars and the mechanisms by which they die. And SN 2023ixf’s relatively close proximity makes the event much more valuable to astronomers. To commemorate Gemini North’s eye opening for the first time in seven months, SN 2023ixf makes for a truly superb opportunity lens.

The damage to the edge of the mirror can be seen on the far left side. The section is outside the light-gathering area for observations. Credits: International Gemini Observatory / NOIRLab / NSF / AURA / J. Pollard

This supernova is a prime example of the kinds of discoveries that will be made by the Vera C. Rubin Observatory when it goes online in 2025. Rubin’s powerful camera and its unprecedented scanning capability will allow it to rapidly detect and visualize supernovae and other transient events in the dynamic sky. Other powerful telescopes, such as those that make up the Gemini International Observatory, will then carry out subsequent observations to study the origins and evolution of these events.

“The successful repair of the Gemini North mirror was a great team effort for NOIRLab and our contractors at Safran-Reosc. Many different groups in NOIRLab worked together to resolve this difficult situation,” Jennifer Lotz, director of the International Gemini Observatory. “Gemini/NOIRLab thanks the Mirror Repair team, Safran-Reosc, the Independent Review Board and all personnel involved in this challenging exercise.”

“These new observations illustrate the extraordinary capabilities of the entire Gemini International Observatory and the vital role the two telescopes will play in future astronomical research,” said NOIRLab director Patrick McCarthy.

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