Last week, Ashley Pagnotta, a post-doc at the American Museum of Natural History, gave a talk entitled, "Supernovae: Cosmic Candles of the Universe." Ashely's research focuses on stellar explosions known as supernovae which occur toward the end of a star's life. Different phenomena give rise to different types of supernovae and by understanding the nature of these explosions, astronomers can better constrain the parameters that help us describe the behavior of our Universe.
It was less than a hundred years ago that astronomers even discovered that the Universe wasn't static, i.e., "standing still". Using the doppler effect to measure the speed at which galaxies were moving away from Earth and cepheid variable stars to measure distance, Edwin Hubble made a plot of of these two variables and discovered that the farther a galaxy was from Earth, the faster it was moving a way from us. Today, we call this plot the Hubble Diagram in his honor and continue to update it as we make better and better measurements. You can make you own Hubble Diagram using data from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey here.
While Hubble's work showed that Universe is expanding, it said nothing about the future of this expansion. To investigate this, two teams of astronomers proposed using Type 1a supernovae to probe the Universe out to greater distances, and therefore farther back in time. They used Type 1a supernovae instead of cepheid variables as these supernovae have a characteristic explosion that allows astronomers to use them as a standard candle of sorts; astronomers know how bright they are at a given distance so they can observe them at various distances and extrapolate their true distance based on their observed brightness. Both teams ended up discovering that the expansion of the Universe was *accelerating*, giving rise to the theory of dark energy, and as a result we awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2011.
Ashely went on to explain how studying how Type 1a supernovae form in more detail can help astronomers minimize errors associated with their distance measurements and thereby improve our understanding of dark energy. You can view the slides from Ashely's talk here.
Unfortunately, the skies were cloudy again so after the lecture, the 120+ audience members toured the roof with the help of graduate student Adrian Price-Whelan, viewed 3D movies with undergraduate Jose Montelongo, and learned about Comet PANSTARRS with Director of Outreach, Summer Ash, and graduate student Yong Zheng.
Please come see us on April 5th when graduate student, Ximena Fernandez, will present highlights from lesser known space telescopes that are providing astronomers with great glimpses of the Universe.
--Summer Ash (Director of Outreach)