Shaler astronomer credited with spotting supernova

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A Shaler astronomer who previously discovered a star cluster and has an asteroid named in his honor has added a supernova to his astronomical accomplishments.

Early last Thursday, Tom Reiland, 64, decided to rest his eyes after hours of observing faint galaxies by turning the telescope toward a favorite "showpiece" in the sky, the Whirlpool Galaxy, or M51.

But Mr. Reiland -- former senior observer at the Allegheny Observatory in Pittsburgh's Riverview Park and the longtime director of the Nicholas E. Wagman Observatory in Deer Lakes Park in Frazer -- noticed an unexpected pinpoint of light through the Manka Memorial Telescope, a 21-inch reflector at Wagman.

It was an object he'd never seen before in that celestial neighborhood.

"Wait a minute ... there are three stars there and usually there are two," he said, describing his thought process at 12:32 a.m. Studying star charts, he found no record of this third star.

Hundreds of times, Mr. Reiland had looked at the Whirlpool Galaxy, a close neighbor of the Milky Way and just under the handle of the Big Dipper, along with its celestial neighbors. So he's familiar with that sector of sky. He measured position and brightness and rechecked his charts. With its location documented, he sent an email to the International Astronomical Union in Cambridge, Mass., about the discovery of a supernova or exploding star.

Sky & Telescope magazine said Mr. Reiland was one of several to see it in the days after it first appeared in the sky.

But over the weekend, the IAU listed him first among four discoverers. As it turns out, he's the original to see it through a telescope. The others, all Europeans, spotted it by studying photographs. IAU officials could not be reached for comment.

Sky & Telescope said the first hint of eruption occurred May 31. The article, "Supernova Erupts in Whirlpool Galaxy," said a Frenchman first photographed it, followed by a German, before Mr. Reiland saw it outright with a telescope.

The supernova is 31 million to 36 million light years from Earth, according to estimates. That means the giant star in the galaxy's outer spiral arm exploded at such a distance from Earth that it took that many years for its light to arrive here.

Sky & Telescope describes the exploding star as "SN (Supernova) 2011dh" -- likely a yellow super giant whose mass was 18 to 24 suns. When stars explode in the final phase of their life cycle, the resulting burst of light can last only weeks or months, but the burst can be brighter than an entire galaxy.

"It's exciting to look at something one night and see nothing there," Mr. Reiland said. "And then a day or two later you see a supernova."

He said it represents "probably the best" discovery of his 40-year career.

David Bishop, who operates the supernova network in Rochester, N.Y., said Mr. Reiland "is the last of dying breed" of astronomer with knowledge and experience to make a rare discovery in an age when most people compare photographic images to find new celestial bodies.

"There are a few others who still observe visually," Mr. Bishop said. "But people who observe with their eyes are rarer and rarer."

At his home on July 17, 1985, Mr. Reiland discovered a star cluster in the constellation Cepheus while practicing his observation skills in advance of Halley's Comet. Increased magnification of the nebulous patch of light allowed him to confirm six stars.

It's now known as Reiland's Cluster.

On Feb. 28, 2004, local astronomy colleagues had an asteroid named in Mr. Reiland's honor to celebrate his decades of professional accomplishments at the Allegheny Observatory and tireless efforts as an amateur. The naming of Minor Planet 10320 Reiland was approved by the IAU.


David Templeton: dtempleton@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1578.


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