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To Search For A New Supernova, Build A New Camera

A blast from the past: Using data from four telescopes, NASA created this image of the first documented sighting of a supernova, made by Chinese astronomers in 185 A.D. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/B. Williams)

The search for the massive star explosions called supernovae is about to get a big boost. Astronomers at Caltech in Pasadena are building a new camera that will let them survey the entire night sky in three nights.

The problem with looking for supernovae is you can't really be sure when and where to look for them. Most telescope cameras can only capture a small patch of sky at a time. But the new camera, to be mounted on a telescope at the Palomar Observatory, has a much larger field of view.

Chinese astronomers recorded seeing the first supernova in 185 A.D. Since then, about 6,500 more have been discovered (for an up-to-date list, look here).

You might think that 6,500 supernovae would give astronomers plenty to chew on, but Caltech astronomer Shrinivas Kulkarni says you can't have too many.

"The more you find, there's always the chance you'll find something exotic," Kulkarni says.

He obtained a $9 million grant from the National Science Foundation to design and build the new camera, which will run autonomously along with the telescope.

"This project was designed to become like an industrial factory for cosmic discoveries," Kulkarni says.

The researchers will be looking for young supernovae, hoping to capture the unique data contained in light from very recent explosions.

A real problem Kulkarni anticipates is making sense of the mountain of data the camera will produce. He's hoping a new generation of computer programmers will be able to come up with good algorithms to help search for interesting events.

The good news is, you don't have to be an expert astronomer to participate in the search. All it requires is that you understand data, be a clear thinker, have programming skills — and who knows?

"A little bit of luck, and you may make a discovery," Kulkarni says. He plans to invite undergraduates to join the project, but he's open to hearing from others — maybe even a programming genius reading this post.

"They can call me," Kulkarni says. "I can make them famous.

The new camera should be ready for action in 2017.

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Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

One of the most spectacular events in the cosmos is a supernova. It's this enormous explosion at the end of a massive star's life. Astronomers have found approximately 6,500 of these events in the last century, more than half of those in just the last decade, but they're really hungry for more. As part of his project Joe's Big Idea, NPR's Joe Palca brings us the story of an astronomer who is planning to automate the search for supernovae.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Supernovae?

GREENE: I believe that is plural for supernova.

INSKEEP: OK.

GREENE: This astronomer thinks that students may actually hold the key to the success of his project.

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: You might think that 6,500 supernovae would give astronomers plenty to chew on, but Shrinivas Kulkarni says you really can't have too many.

SHRINIVAS KULKARNI: The more you find, there's always a chance you'll find something exotic.

PALCA: Kulkarni is an astronomer at Caltech in Pasadena. He's made his share of exotic discoveries. Now he's after exotic supernovae. The way astronomers work has changed a lot in the last few decades. Kulkarni says in the past, astronomers actually had to go to observatories on the tops of mountains.

KULKARNI: You trundle off to a telescope, you open the dome, you sniff the air, you take data, you see things with the eyes.

PALCA: But now that romantic image of a lone astronomer peering into the night sky is gone. The telescope is under computer control, special cameras record all the data and astronomers don't have to leave their offices to see the results. That automation has advantages. Since you don't know precisely where or when a supernova will show up, you have to keep coming back to the same patch of sky over, and over, and over, and over, and over again, hoping you'll catch an explosion in the act. For human astronomers, this is extremely tedious. Machines don't seem to mind. Starting in 2017, Kulkarni plans to deploy camera that can capture the entire night sky in just three nights of observing and it can do so all on its own.

KULKARNI: This project was designed to become like an industrial factory for cosmic discovery.

PALCA: No more trundling off to observatories or peering into the night sky.

KULKARNI: Everything will automate. Almost my mantra was - the best way to do astronomy is to get the astronomers out of the dome.

PALCA: Does it make you sad at all that you lose some of that romance, or is it more exciting to get the data?

KULKARNI: Yeah, it is a bit sad. You know, it's always sad to go into a world where it's just very different from a world you grew up in.

PALCA: But Kulkarni says what you get in exchange is worth it.

KULKARNI: I was born as a Hindu but I consider myself as a Buddhist and one of the things that Buddha said - apparently - is, the only constant in life is change.

So I welcome change because those who don't welcome change will be crushed anyway.

PALCA: Kulkarni says the challenge for astronomers today is finding what they are looking for in the mountain of data their telescopes are collecting. He says to find supernovae in the data or any other cosmic event you don't actually have to be an astronomer.

KULKARNI: All it requires you to have is understand data, be a clear thinker, no programming skills and a little hard work and a little bit of luck, and you may make a discovery.

PALCA: Kulkarni says young people who've grown up with computers have a leg up in designing the new kinds of software that will be needed to make discoveries. That's why he's invited undergraduates to participate in the project - and he's not limiting participation to people in academia.

KULKARNI: Maybe if some of your listeners are some software geniuses, they can call me. I can make them famous.

PALCA: And hey, if you do join the search and find something interesting, let me know. That would make a great story. Joe Palca, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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