In September 2016, Víctor Buso was photographing the spiral galaxy NGC 613 in the Sculptor constellation to test out his new telescope camera. Little did the amateur Argentinian astronomer know that his photos would make history.

Buso was able to take snapshots of an exploding star, or a supernova. Professional astronomers observe hundreds of supernovae each year, but those are spotted with gamma-ray or X-ray detecting telescopes.

Buso is the first person ever to capture a supernova using only optical light, a feat that UC Berkeley astronomer Alex Filippenko likens to “winning the cosmic lottery.”

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A paper describing the discovery of the explosion now named SN 2016gkg, along with Filippenko’s study, will be published in the journal Nature on Wednesday.

“Professional astronomers have long been searching for such an event,” Filippenko, who followed up the monumental images with observations at the Lick Observatory in California and the Keck Observatory in Hawaii, said in a statement. “Observations of stars in the first moments they begin exploding provide information that cannot be directly obtained in any other way.”

Sequence of combined images (negatives, so black corresponds to bright) obtained by Víctor Buso as SN 2016gkg appears and brightens in the outskirts of the spiral galaxy NGC 613. Labels indicate the time each image was taken. The object steadily brightens for about 25 minutes, as shown quantitatively in the lower-right panel.
Sequence of combined images (negatives, so black corresponds to bright) obtained by Víctor Buso as SN 2016gkg appears and brightens in the outskirts of the spiral galaxy NGC 613. Labels indicate the time each image was taken. The object steadily brightens for about 25 minutes, as shown quantitatively in the lower-right panel.

Supernovae are the final stage of a massive star’s life, once its core becomes so massive it collapses and ejects everything it contained out into space. Picking up the resulting gamma or x-ray radiation from an event like this is one thing, but capturing this in a photograph is all about location, timing, and a lot of luck. Think about it like trying to take a picture of the exact moment a firecracker explodes.

Astronomer Melina Bersten at the Institute of Astrophysics of The Planet in Argentina estimated that Buso’s chances of making such a discovery were one in 10 million, or even as low as one in 100 million.

Filippenko and his team compared the new image to theoretical models and broke it up into different light spectra to determine the cause of the explosion. The team found that the star was at one point 20 times the mass of the sun, and it exploded once it ran out of its hydrogen fuel, causing the collapse of its core.

Supernova 2016gkg in NGC 613; color image taken by a group of UC Santa Cruz astronomers on Feb. 18, 2017, with the 1-meter Swope telescope.
Supernova 2016gkg in NGC 613; color image taken by a group of UC Santa Cruz astronomers on Feb. 18, 2017, with the 1-meter Swope telescope.

Thanks to the joint work of a space enthusiast, scientists, and a lot of luck, the astronomical community now has a better picture of the physical structure of stars right before their cataclysmic demise.

You could say the stars aligned for this discovery — well, one of them, anyway.