Close But No SN

This is a sob story — the big one that got away.

It was my first outing with my new CCD camera, and my target was a galaxy pair I have admired for decades. I had never taken a view of a galaxy before.

Messier 51 is a bright spiral galaxy about 30 million light-years away, with one arm wrenched askew by the pull of a nearby galaxy called NGC 5195. It is an enchanting view and the interaction is thought-provoking. I was determined to photograph them.

A NASA press release explains, “Some simulations suggest M51’s sharp spiral shape was partially caused when NGC 5195 passed through its main disk about 500 million years ago. This gravitational tug of war may also have triggered an increased level of star formation in M51. The companion galaxy’s pull would be inducing extra starbirth by compressing gas, jump-starting the process by which stars form.”

My SBIG camera’s first exposure that early morning of Saturday, June 18, 2005, was of M51 and its tormentor. The site was on slickrock not far from Castle Dale, Emery County, and gusts of wind occasionally rocked my telescope. When the moon set around 2:30 a.m., the southern Milky Way blazed gloriously. I photographed the galaxy pair, and as the images popped onto my laptop I could see the clear spiral structure and knots of star-forming regions in the galaxy’s arms. Sometimes my focus was off and sometimes the wind caused the photos to smear during exposure. I knew I could do better and I resolved to improve my M51 photos next time.

[My photograph of M51 and NGC 5195, taken the morning of June 18, 2005. The smaller galaxy is at the top of M51’s outstretched arm in this view.]

Because of my work schedule, the next opportunity I had for a desert astrophotography trip was the following weekend, which for me was Friday night and Saturday morning, June 24-25. (In those days, I worked Sunday afternoon and evening, then days on Monday through Thursday.) I wanted to head out and try again with M51, but my high school reunion was coming up, starting on June 30.

Instead, I stayed home that weekend and put together a CD of photos from those days when my friends and I were growing up on Kwajalein, Marshall Islands. Then when we got together in Dallas, I could give them copies of the pictures.

Seeing my old buddies from the missile base was an amazing experience. Cory and I did some sightseeing, including the Texas Book Depository Building. But by staying home to make the CD, I probably missed a once-in-a-lifetime chance to discover a supernova.

The discovery was announced on June 28, 2005, by a German amateur, Wolfgang Kloehr. Using a 10-inch reflector telescope, he had photographed something odd in M51 on Sunday, June 26. But he had not been sure and he checked again on June 28.

In a passage that was translated and posted on the Internet, Kloehr wrote about June 28, “The weather was not particularly good. It was windy and clouds pulled through again and again. Nevertheless I decided for the setting up. A short view would already be enough.

“And there was the big surprise.

“At the same position of the small spot I saw yesterday there was now a bright shining star. Because of the weather conditions it was only possible for me to take some bad single images. But the findings were clear.”

He had discovered a supernova in M51. To him goes full, deserved credit. When others examined photos they had taken on June 26, “prediscovery” images of the supernova turned up.

Would I have photographed the supernova if I had gone out on June 24-25? Maybe the supernova hadn’t started yet. But if it had, I believe I would have. Would I have recognized it and claimed credit? I hope so.

But that’s beside the point.

On the night of Friday-Saturday, July 8-9, I had no trouble photographing the supernova. By then Kloehr and his find were famous.

[Here is a view I took of M51 and the supernova on the morning of July 9, 2005. I reprocessed the original data, then cropped and rotated it so that it is oriented the same as the earlier view. To see where the exploding star is, CLICK HERE.]

For a series of views of the supernova on an Internet site dedicated to it — including one I took that July — CLICK HERE.

Nearly four years later, I am left with one overriding thought: Grrrrr.

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