A discovery by two amateur astronomers in central Florida helped to set in motion a global network of ground- and space-based telescopes today, observing a violent explosion of a distant star in our Galaxy. The two astronomers, Dr. Barbara Harris of New Smyrna Beach and Shawn Dvorak of Clermont, were active participants in a global research campaign to monitor activity of the star U Scorpii. Their detection of this explosion in the early morning hours of January 28 served as the trigger for a number of satellites and ground-based telescopes waiting on this important event.
U Sco, an object known as a recurrent nova, had been predicted to outburst during a two-year window beginning in the spring of 2008. Both Harris and Dvorak had been conducting long-term monitoring as part of a campaign run by the American Association of Variable StarObservers (AAVSO). This campaign involved professional and amateur observers from around the world monitoring this star every night throughout that two-year window. Their persistence paid off early in the morning of January 28. Harris was first to detect the outburst shortly before 6 a.m. local time,with Dvorak’s independent detection arriving shortly afterward. The two near-simultaneous observations provided all the proof required to alert observers and observatories around the world and in space that USco’s outburst had finally occurred.
Within an hour, a global network of observatories were set in motion, and by the end of the morning, two X-ray satellites (the Rossi X-Ray Timing Observatory andthe INTEGRAL satellite) had already made observations. Over the next several months, astronomers will be monitoring the progress of this outburst at nearly all wavelengths of light from radio waves to X-raysusing a number of ground-based telescopes and spaceborne observatories.
Dr. Arne Henden, Director of the AAVSO, commented that “this again shows the real advantage of the worldwide distribution of amateur astronomers for detecting transient events like this. Harris and Dvorak could watch U Sco rise over the Atlantic, hours before professional astronomers in the Western U.S. would have a chance. Then, because of the winter weather for most U.S. professional observatories, amateurs continued monitoring U Sco from New Zealand and Australia, catching the important first hours of the outburst.”
The AAVSO’s Observing Campaign coordinator, Dr. Matthew Templeton,notes that amateur astronomers play an important role in time-criticalprojects such as this. “Amateurs have the option of observing what they want, when they want. Sometimes, the only source of observational data for projects such as this is the amateur community. The observers of the AAVSO have been working with the professional community for decades to provide this kind of help. It’s a key part of the process of doing scientific research, and the work of the amateur community makes it possible.”
Amateur astronomers around the world will continue to participate in the observing campaign, providing data to complement the observations made by larger ground- and space-based telescopes.
The progress of the U Scorpii outburst can be followed via the internet; the AAVSO ismaintaining a web page devoted to the event, and anyone can view observational data as they are submitted in real time through the AAVSO website.
More information on U Scorpii and the AAVSO campaign: http://www.aavso.org/news/usco.shtml
Update: U Scorpii went from 18th magnitude (large telescope object) the previous day to its current 8th magnitude (a binocular object). Experts predict that it will start fading in the next day or two possibly. Located in the constellation Scorpius, U Scorpii above the southeastern horizon in the predawn hour.
You want to watch the nova for yourself? Then check out the detailed finder’s charts here.
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