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Posted on Tue, Jun 7, 2011 : 5:59 a.m.

Washtenaw County stargazers capture image of newly discovered supernova

By Kelly Davenport


A comparison of images of the Messier 51 galaxy shows a supernova, right, that was photographed by amateur astronomer Brian Ottum of Saline on Sunday night. The supernova, marked at right by two white lines, was discovered late last month.

Courtesy of Brian Ottum

Clear, dark skies with only a sliver of moon Sunday night set the stage for a “holy cow!” moment for two stargazers in Washtenaw County.

Brian Ottum of Saline and Dipankar Maitra of Ann Arbor sighted and photographed a supernova in the double galaxy called Messier 51 near the constellation Ursa Major, commonly known as “The Big Dipper.”

The supernova, a large exploding star, was discovered in late May by an amateur French astronomer. Ottum estimated it would be visible for only about another month.

Even though the supernova actually exploded 31 million years ago, it's just now visible to us Earthlings. And it's big news in the astronomy community.


Brian Ottum's 16-foot observatory sits in his backyard in Saline.

Courtesy of Brian Ottum

After the French amateur sighted it last week, “the Internet came alive” with astronomy chatter, Ottum said Monday.

“Everyone around the world is watching it,” he said.

And while Ottum — a business consultant who maintains a 16-foot observatory in his backyard in Saline — has seen a supernova before, this one is a bit more special.

“They’re discovering one almost daily,” he said. “But they’re usually extremely faint and very far away in tiny little smudge galaxies that no one ever looks at.”

The galaxy that’s home to the new supernova, by contrast, is known for its elegant double-spiral shape. It’s sometimes called the Whirlpool Galaxy.

“All the astronomers love to look at this one because it’s double, it’s in the Big Dipper, and it’s cool,” Ottum said.

As for the supernova, it’s “much brighter than usual, and it’s in a showpiece — something close by and that people know well.”

Ottum had scoured the skies for the supernova last week after learning of its existence and saw nothing. Light pollution can be a problem in the region, but skies were clear and dark Sunday night.

So, just around midnight, Ottum and Maitra, a postdoctoral research scholar with the University of Michigan’s astronomy department, aligned Ottum’s digital Canon camera with the telescope in his backyard observatory. In essence, the telescope becomes the camera’s extended eye, Ottum explained.

For an hour, they took 2-minute exposures — “when you take pictures, you don’t take a whole hour’s worth at a time because of light pollution,” Ottum said.

Then they checked their findings. They’d captured the star.

“We looked at the camera and went, ‘Holy cow!’ It was very exciting to actually see it,” he said.

Ottum, an enthusiastic photographer of the cosmos who maintains a portfolio online, used a photo editing program to stitch together the hour’s worth of images into the one shown here.

“The romance of the night sky” has long fascinated Ottum.

He described watching a lunar eclipse at age 12, when the moon turned blood red. From then on, “I was hooked.”

He acquired the observatory dome in 1996. It had originally been made for the Air Force, which didn’t end up needing it. Ottum learned of it and made an offer.

“I went and picked it up in a rental truck. It’s delivered in pieces, stacked up like a meringue pie,” he said.

He’s hosted Girl Scout and Boy Scout troops at the dome, as well as other local astronomy buffs.

“Kids are great first-time observers,” he said. “We love hearing ‘holy cow!’ when someone sees Saturn and its rings for the first time. Our scopes can show you Saturn as good as pretty much the best picture you’ve seen.”

Ottum is also an active member of the University Lowbrow Astronomers in Ann Arbor — “lowbrow” because any amateur stargazer is welcome.

The club organizes regular “star parties” at Peach Mountain, a radio telescope near Dexter. The next Peach Mountain open house night for the public is June 25.

When Ottum gets together with just his fellow astronomy enthusiasts, they seek out the best dark skies in the region. Lake Hudson State Recreation Area southwest of Adrian, for instance, is a “dark sky preserve.”

“Once a year, we do a sort of competition where we stay up all night and try to see as many of the ‘top 110’ sky objects as we can,” he said.

Midnight coffee keeps them going.

In July, Ottum will head for Bryce Canyon in Utah to host weekly star parties during a summer National Park Service program at the preserve known for its inky darkness.

"They get thousands of people every week" visiting to see the stars, he said.

And Ottum’s favorite sight in the sky? He answers without hesitation.

“The summer Milky Way. It’s just rich with all the stuff at the center of our galaxy — clouds of gas where stars are born, stellar nurseries. That is the coolest stuff to see.”

Kelly Davenport is a copy editor/news producer for Reach her at



Wed, Jun 8, 2011 : 3:26 a.m.

It appears that 'Northside' has not understood my comment. I was not speaking about the age of earth or the age of this physical universe in which man exists. I am speaking about the purpose of this universe and man's status in nature. It is very easy to rationally understand that the photo image does not represent the reality of today.


Tue, Jun 7, 2011 : 6:36 p.m.

For those who are interested in the beauty our particular universe provides, for those who would like to gaze upon it with their own eyes, for those who would like to expand their minds intellectually , as well at their children's (highly recommended) then The University Lowbrow Astronomers is your (free) ticket! On cloudless Saturday nights, the weeks on or around the time of a new moon, the observatory, with roll off roof containing the huge 24&quot; McMath telescope with it's newly re-coated primary mirror, is open to the public for viewing (most of the time). Additionally, there are many who bring telescopes of all types and sizes that love to share the view. Located at Peach Mountain, part of Stinchfield Woods at the South end of Portage lake. Public access is off N. Territorial. This should be on every one's &quot;bucket list&quot;! Full info can be found at.... <a href="" rel='nofollow'></a>

Will Warner

Tue, Jun 7, 2011 : 5:16 p.m.

Love to see a man deriving so much from a hobby. I don't know whether I'm more moved by the photo of the galaxy or by that of Brian's observatory. I remember sleeping "under the stars" in the bush of the Yukon, clear winter nights, and the sky was so incredibly full of starts. Unbelievably full. A thousand times as many stars as we see around here. And they twinkled. Seeing that, I easily understood how our distant ancestors could have been so familiar with the night sky, enough even to navigate by it, and to clearly discern the "wanderers." Apropos of nothing, I am reminded of this star reference: Werhner von Braun's 1960 biographical film was entitled "I Aim for the Stars." Comedian Mort Sahl suggested the title should be, "I Aim for the Stars, but Sometimes I Hit London."


Tue, Jun 7, 2011 : 4:41 p.m.

Once again science is wrong and trying to trick people. The world is only 6,000 years old so there's no way that a 'supernova' (fancy made up term just meaning bright lights in the sky) exploded (ha ha) 31 million years ago. People need to spend less time being misled by scientists and more time reading The Bible.


Fri, Jun 10, 2011 : 8:30 p.m.

There are lots of us the see harmony with faith and science. We all know in part and only see dimly as through a veil. Scientists don't need to deny spiritual longing; believers don't need to stick their heads in the sand either. How much literature does not use metaphor to help us understand what may be beyond our current understanding.. How cool to see the light from a supernova exploding 31M yrs ago.. glorious!


Tue, Jun 7, 2011 : 6:23 p.m.

So do you think it happened about 5639 years ago (give or take a couple of years)?


Tue, Jun 7, 2011 : 6:11 p.m.

Thanks northside...I really needed a good laugh today!


Tue, Jun 7, 2011 : 4:21 p.m.

Thanks for sharing the photographs. Man seeks to know the reality. This photo image may reveal the reality that existed in the past and hence is not real. In Indian tradition,a thing that changes its nature could be unreal. The idea of truth and reality are always put together and what is true is also real. The truth is, man has no ability to see the reality. However, man can seek to know the Ultimate Reality that exists without undergoing any change by the influence of Time. Man is a created being who exists in a universe that is created and the universe exists to provide home to man and to host other living creatures.


Tue, Jun 7, 2011 : 12:26 p.m.

More articles like this one - very cool, and thanks for the info on the stargazers club...have to check that out.


Tue, Jun 7, 2011 : 12:02 p.m.

This is a wonderful shot. I don't understand, however, why the background is so different in the two pictures. How does one know whether the object in question is background or part of the galaxy shown?


Tue, Jun 7, 2011 : 5:47 p.m.

Major is correct. The After is a smaller shot, rotated to match Before, and pasted on top of the blank right side of Before.

Jake C

Tue, Jun 7, 2011 : 1:59 p.m.

Major, it's not just that. If these were simple rotated &amp; resized photos, then the background stars would match up exactly as well. I can count at least 10 points of light that are different between each photo.

Jake C

Tue, Jun 7, 2011 : 1:57 p.m.

My guess would be satellites or general photographic interference. Before you publish photos such as these, you need to consider the positions of satellites in earth orbit that could be misinterpreted as stellar events (and there are a ridiculous number of them). Usually just taking two photos back to back is enough to tell what is a satellite, and what is a star.


Tue, Jun 7, 2011 : 1:56 p.m.

If you look close, you will see that the After shot is smaller, and simply rotated and pasted on top of the bigger Before shot. Look real close at the picture, you can just make out that the after shot, is smaller. Looks to me like the after shot has been pasted over the original and slightly bigger before shot. A VERY awesome photo!


Tue, Jun 7, 2011 : 11:47 a.m.

I'm always amazed at the time disconnect between celestial events and our knowledge of them. 31 million years between the implosion of this star and our awareness. Makes you wonder if an event that will forever, dramatically change things here on Earth has already happened.


Tue, Jun 7, 2011 : 4:26 p.m.

&quot;Makes you wonder if an event that will forever, dramatically change things here on Earth has already happened.&quot; Like when human was first created?

Jake C

Tue, Jun 7, 2011 : 1:56 p.m.

&quot;Makes you wonder if an event that will forever, dramatically change things here on Earth has already happened.&quot; That's the fascination that draws many people into the realm of Astrophysics . Such events have already happened with 100% certainty. We already know that within a few billion years, our sun will turn into a red giant and envelop the earth, turning our planet into a burnt husk. I'm more worried about what will happen within the next 100 years, but it's interesting to think about long-term prospects. Or there may have been an intense supernova event within our own Milky Way galaxy, and a massive wave of planet-destroying particles and energy could be streaming towards our planet with nothing we can do to detect or prevent it until minutes or seconds before it occurs. Not nearly as likely, but still something fascinating to think about.


Tue, Jun 7, 2011 : 11:38 a.m.

What a beautiful shot of the dome with the rainbow in the background.