For years, Stansbury resident Patrick Wiggins has dreamed of discovering a supernova.
That dream came true two weeks ago when Wiggins became the first to photograph SN 2014G, a supernova some 78 million light years away — so far away that Wiggins estimated the supernova actually occurred when dinosaurs walked the Earth — near the constellation Ursa Major.
The idea of hunting supernovae first came to him about three years ago. He had already discovered a couple of asteroids, so when he heard about a teenager who had been the first to site a supernova, he figured he should have no trouble making such a discovery himself.
“Little did I know, it’s really hard to do,” he said.
A supernova, essentially a large star that has ended its “life cycle” with a powerful explosion, may appear in the night sky for the first time at any point, Wiggins said. The trick to discovering one is to be the first to spot a new, bright light in the distant night sky.
So Wiggins set up a list of galaxies he began to routinely photograph and survey for supernova. For three years, he found nothing. Then, on Jan. 14, he noticed an odd speck in one of his photos.
“I could tell there was something there, but it just didn’t look real,” he said.
At first, Wiggins thought it was probably some kind of cosmic ray or other phenomenon interfering with his lens. He took another picture of his galaxy, and continued with his nightly routine. But when he looked back at his second photo, he noticed that the speck was still there.
Intrigued, Wiggins took several more pictures of the galaxy, watching for any kind of movement — he felt sure this was probably some kind of asteroid, which, unlike a supernova, would move. But it didn’t.
Still unconvinced, Wiggins began to search lists of known supernova in that part of the sky. But he found nothing.
“At about that time, I started to get excited,” he said. “But I didn’t want to be laughed at, so I sat on it for a couple of hours.”
Before long Wiggins began poking around online to see if anyone else had noticed the anomaly. For several days, no one replied to his questions. He had just begun to research how to report a supernova discovery when word got out that Koichi Itagaki, an astronomer in Japan, had sighted a new supernova — Wiggin’s supernova.
Fortunately, Wiggins had made enough noise online that it was known that he had been the first to take a picture of the far-off galactic event. When the official discovery was listed, both Wiggins and Itagaki were named as independent discoverers. And given that Itagaki is world-famous, Wiggins said he was happy to have his name listed alongside the Japanese astronomer.
“Being listed as an independent discoverer with this guy is like being listed with Einstein,” he said.
The discovery is also a lesson in patience, Wiggins said. He counted the number of galaxies he has photographed over the last three years of searching for supernova, and said he had taken 469 pictures before finding his supernova.
He doesn’t get to name it, but Wiggins said he’s OK with that, since he has named other celestial bodies, including the asteroid “Elko,” which he named for his hometown. He’s now currently devoting his sky-surveying efforts to a project he’s undertaking for NASA, which has him spending several hours a night observing an asteroid the space agency has slated as a possibility for an unmanned exploratory mission.
It may not sound quite as thrilling as finding a supernova, but Wiggins said he finds the work very fulfilling.
“I get a really good feeling knowing that I am contributing to our body of scientific knowledge,” he said.
Wiggins is a Solar System Ambassador for NASA and frequently visits local schools to teach schoolchildren about astronomy.