Victor Buso may be one of the luckiest amateur astronomers in the world, being the first to see a supernova as it happened. In a remarkable stroke of serendipity, this skygazer from Argentina came across this remarkable sight while testing a new camera on his telescope on September 20, 2016.
Supernovas are the explosive deaths of massive stars, and these events can result in single stars, like SN 2016gkg, outshining their entire galaxies.
“Professional astronomers have long been searching for such an event. Observations of stars in the first moments they begin exploding provide information that cannot be directly obtained in any other way,” explained astronomer Alex Filippenko of the University of California Berkeley.
After seeing an unexpected pinpoint of light while photographing the galaxy NGC 613, Buso suspected he may have seen a supernova. Immediately, Buso attempted to contact professional astronomers to confirm his finding, but most professional skywatchers in the country were attending a conference, leading him to message a colleague, Sebastian Otero. The following night, he checked again, finding the point had brightened, confirming his notion.
Astrophysicists had theorized that a wave of energy would emanate from the core of a dying star, traveling to the surface, in the opening moments of a super nova explosion. However, this event had never before been witnessed until Buso recorded it on his camera. Seeing a supernova as it develops will also provide astronomers with a wealth of new information about the life cycles of stars.
“The electromagnetic emission during the first minutes to hours after the emergence of the shock from the stellar surface conveys important information about the final evolution and structure of the exploding star. However, the unpredictable nature of supernova events hinders the detection of this brief initial phase,” wrote researchers in the journal Nature.
All the elements in the Universe, other than the three lightest – hydrogen, helium, and lithium, are created during supernovae. These include the elements most critical to life on Earth, including oxygen and carbon, providing the late astronomer Carl Sagan with his famous tagline that “We are all made of star stuff.”
Buso makes his living as a locksmith in the city of Rosario, Argentina. His parents instilled a love of astronomy in him when he was ten years old, and at age 11, he built his first telescope. In 2010, he built his own observatory from proceeds made from selling a piece of property he owned with his father.
Filippenko and his team estimate that the star seen by Buso originally had a mass around 20 times greater than the Sun, but it lost around three-quarters of that prior to the explosion.
Astronomers estimate the chance that a supernova would be witnessed just as it occurred at around ten million to one.