Types of Supernovae

Two types of supernovae are recognized. Type I supernovae contain little hydrogen, whereas Type II are rich in hydrogen. Only Type II supernovae are associated with the core collapse of high-mass stars. Type I supernovae are associated with our friends the white dwarfs.

No supernova has appeared in our Galaxy, the Milky Way, since 1604. Since supernovae are among the most energetic processes known, it is not surprising that the light of a supernova can outshine the combined light of the entire Galaxy. Theory predicts a supernova occurrence in our Galaxy every 100 years or so. We are, therefore, more than a bit overdue, and we may be in for a spectacular display any day now. The cosmic rays and electromagnetic radiation that would rain down on the earth if a nearby supernova were to go off (say within 30-50 light-years) would have catastrophic results. Fortunately, there aren't any stars that close to us massive enough to generate a Type II supernova.

But you don't have to wait for a supernova to occur in the Milky Way. You can search for them (as well as novae) in other galaxies. The best areas for searching are in the regions of the constellations Leo and Virgo, which contain many galaxies. It is sometimes possible to see novae and supernovae, which appear as bright stars, with binoculars, if you don't have a telescope. Be aware that, if you witness a supernova, you are viewing the most powerful explosion you will ever see. Amateur astronomers have been credited with many supernova discoveries. For an impressive example of supernova discoveries by Puckett Observatory (33 as of March 2001), see www.astronomyatlanta.com/nova.html.

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