Utah 'Amateur' Astronomer Discovers Third Supernova

May 19, 2017

Credit Sergiy Vakulenko

Scanning the skies from his Tooele home is a nightly hobby of  Patrick Wiggins’. Most of the time, he said, the activity consists mostly of scanning through anywhere from 600 to 1200 pictures of 300 galaxies each night.

Every once in a while, buried in those hundreds of pictures, Wiggins’ telescope will capture something amazing.

This time, it was “a dot. I mean, that’s basically it,” he said. “If you were unfortunate enough to be living on a planet orbiting that star when it went kablewie it would look like a lot more than a dot. But 22 million light-years away even a big kablewie still looks like a dot.”

Since the discovery, Wiggins says major observatories have honed in on the supernova, named SN 2017AEW. By studying supernovae, Wiggins, a public outreach educator for the University of Utah’s Department of Physics & Astronomy, says scientists at these observatories hope to learn more about the nature of the Universe.

“The Universe is expanding, and the thought was that the Universe was expanding but it was going slower and slower,” Wiggins said. “But a few years ago, by studying supernovae, we found out that — wait a minute — the Universe is not only expanding but it’s accelerating. And so it’s by studying these really distant things like supernovae that we can make discoveries like that.”

By his own count, Wiggins has spent 1,051 nights scanning the skies with his personal telescope. In that time, he’s discovered two other supernovae. And “there is an Asteroid Wiggins out there, which I think is kind of neat,” he said.

This Saturday, astronomy enthusiasts can get a glimpse of Wiggins’ supernova at the Stansbury Park Observatory Center’s star party. From dusk to 10 p.m., they’ll be checking out SN 2017AEW and other discoveries made by amateurs like Wiggins.