Brightest Known Supernova Detected

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He actually observed supernova 2005ap there before 2006gy. But only recent follow-up studies that pinpointed distance revealed 2005ap's true power.

"There's no question that [his results] have gotten everybody's attention," J. Craig Wheeler, Quimby's colleague and a supernova expert at the University of Texas at Austin, said in a press release.

On the Hunt

Supernovae are rare events, occurring roughly twice a century in a galaxy like the Milky Way.

Researchers study them for insights into the fates of stars bigger than our sun. The explosions also serve as evidence that the expansion of the universe is accelerating, because the most distant ones appear dimmer than expected.

Supernovae are also the only way elements heavier than iron are seeded throughout the universe and play a vital role in the evolution of galaxies, Quimby said.

"Plus, they're huge explosions, and that's just cool," he said.

Despite their massive size and power, however, finding supernovae amidst the glare of other cosmic objects isn't easy.

Galaxies get much brighter toward their cores, which can wash out the contrast of a new supernova, Quimby said.

The University of California's Lick Observatory Supernova Search actually studied the area containing 2006gy before him, Quimby said, but missed it because they couldn't distinguish the explosion from its galaxy's brilliant core.

Quimby said part of his supernova-hunting success is his technique. He checks dwarf galaxies as well as galaxies with active black holes at their centers, which other studies avoid, raising the possibility of discovering new types of supernovae previously overlooked.

2006gy, for example, was found in the core of a galaxy with a weak central black hole.

"I've worked too damn hard for this to be luck," he said.

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