Mesozoic era. About 250 million years ago. Dinosaurs appear on Earth and the first mammals after Permia, which completed with the largest mass extinction of species that has ever been registered in Paleontology. At that time, somewhere in the Galaxy a star came to the end of its life and exploded, causing the phenomenon of a Supernova.
Thessaloniki, last days of July 2015. Stavros Koukioglou, sitting in front of his laptop and projects, or “blinks” as it’s called, images of galaxies that are possible targets for the registration of a supernova. A little while after 7pm, he notices a small dot in the middle of the screen. “The dot was so powerful that it could not be noise”, he says. As it was later proven, that dot was the shining from the explosion of a Supernova, around the dinosaurs’ era, and its light only just arrived to Earth, after travelling 250 million light years. The amateur astronomer from Thessaloniki was the first to notice it worldwide, and the Greek Supernovae Survey Team (GSST) of the Association of Astronomers’ Friends (http://www.ofa.gr/) claimed its first Supernova discovery, adding a little brick in the great wall of the universe’s understanding.
Stavros Koukioglou belongs to the “observers” team and with the head of team Kostas Emmanouilidis they compare old and new photos of galaxies to try and note any small difference between the two. The differences in the photos can show comets or asteroids, or even supernovae and exoplanets. “The human eye can spot differences in the photos better than computers”, they said. Supernova hunting is only possible through observation, which is an especially tedious and monotonous process, while the satisfaction of a discovery can come quite late. Justice has come to Greek “hunters” after 14 years of searching.
Observers are a key point of the process, because they are the first ones to spot something unusual which will lead to a great discovery, or they will be the reason why we will miss it.
While it gets dark in the Greek skies, observers receive new photos of galaxies targeted for the night. However, competitors around the world do the same – and something more.
“Professional astronomers search all day, because they have telescopes all around Earth, so they always have one looking at the dark skies. On the other side, we can only wait until it gets dark. This would require investment of millions of Euros from organisations and universities”.
This shows how important it is to identify a Supernova. Scientists use the brightness identified to calculate the immense distances in Space and to calculate their age, while they study heavy metals that the explosion creates – crucial for life creation. This is why a supernova discovery goes through a long process with austere astronomical protocols.
“I searched 400 known supernovae before I sent the confirmation, and we followed all the process’s steps. All this ended around 6 in the morning, when I sent my report. I was very anxious. The report is straight away logged in a list in the International Astronomical Union (http://www.iau.org/) for other astronomers to check the same item, and capture more images. By submitting a report, you direct many people and many telescopes to a specific direction to look for your discovery, so you cost everyone a lot. If you are mistaken, you automatically get put on the black list” says Mr Emmanouilidis. A little while after the publication of their discovery, a Japanese observer confirmed the phenomenon from a telescope in Spain, and registered the first follow up to the Greek discovery.
Until today, the team has found 270 supernovae, but they were never first. They had from 3 days to 3 hours delay. The observatory often hosts visits from AUT students (https://www.auth.gr/en) for essays, dissertations or because they are interested in becoming observers.
Before the amateur astronomers in Thessaloniki, the previous Greek who put his name next to an astronomical discovery is Ioannis Paraskevopoulos, who led the astronomical station Boyden of Harvard University from 1927 to his death in 1951. Paraskevopoulos, apart from the (approximately) 100.000 photographs of astronomical observations that he made, he also co-discovered two comets: C/1940 O1 (Whipple -Paraskevopoulos) in 1940 and C/1941 B2 (de Kock-Paraskevopoulos) in 1941. A crater also bears his name on.. the dark side of the moon, while Paraskevopoulos was also the name of an asteroid which was discovered in the Boyden observatory in 1966.
Source: Kathimerini (http://www.kathimerini.gr/ http://www.ekathimerini.com/ )