Japanese amateur is master supernova detective
Wed, Jul 29, 2009
Yomiuri Shimbun/Asia News Network

YAMAGATA, JAPAN - A quiet Japanese man has just discovered his 50th supernova, or a massive explosion caused by a dying star.

Mr Koichi Itagaki, an amateur astronomer, is not just one of the world's most prolific discoverers of such phenomena: Experts say he is remarkable in his ability to find supernovas that are of real scientific interest.

Maybe it's because he insists on using his eyes, refusing to simply depend on computers. Said a Kyushu University astrophysicist, Associate Professor Hitoshi Yamaoka: "The supernovas discovered by Mr Itagaki are unique, they're near and bright and, from a research standpoint, quite valuable."

The study of supernovas is helpful in understanding how the Earth and the entire universe were formed.

Mr Itagaki, 61, manages a bean-confectionery company in Yamagata. He built an observatory at the foot of the Zao mountains in the city. Inside the dome-shaped, 5m-tall building, he has set up telescopes to look at the night sky.

It was only nine years ago that he found his first supernova - yet, only eight other people have found more of them.

Mr Itagaki connects his reflecting telescopes - one with a 50cm aperture and the other with a 60m aperture - to six computers, then compares the images taken with those taken of the same area several years ago.

He looks for the faint light that supernovas emit. A supernova is believed to occur in a galaxy only once every 50 to 100 years.

Supernovas usually appear as tiny specks of light in the photos, but he said that "no matter how blurred the speck may be, I'll soon know if there is any abnormality".

Almost every night, he scans through images - sometimes as many as 1,500 at one go.

Some supernova hunters use computers to detect minute changes when comparing images, but Mr Itagaki prefers to trust his own eyes.

"It's definitely faster to (look for supernovas) with one's own eyes," he said. Computers also throw up false alerts due to technical glitches.

He said: "I enjoy searching for supernovas. And I feel so happy when I am looking at the stars. That's the most important thing. Because it's fun, the work is not a chore."

--Yomiuri Shimbun/ANN

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