BOSTON — LESS than two months after tiny Wheaton College began its supernova search program, a professor and students made an exciting discovery - a brightly burning star that collapsed on itself about 65 million years ago.
The rare supernova was the first discovered by a small college program. Wheaton has 1,300 undergraduates at its campus in Norton, Mass.
Timothy Barker, who founded the program, pinpointed the star. ``This star died when the dinosaurs died,'' Professor Barker says.
With the help of students, Barker spent 10 years preparing for the search project, creating a computer program that would instruct a 14-inch telescope to focus on 1,200 galaxies in sequence, one every 30 seconds.
``The significance is the heroic effort and the great job these guys did,'' says Carl Pennypacker, co-director of a more sophisticated supernova search at the University of California at Berkeley.
In late May, Barker and his students began spending nights on the roof of the school's science center, looking for dying stars on a TV monitor linked to a light-sensitive camera that looks through the telescope.
If the monitor shows a bright star that's not on the map, they have their first clue to what might be a supernova. Barker spotted such a star just before midnight on June 26, smack in the middle of Galaxy NGC 4948.
Spotting supernovas as they become visible is important because the bright light lasts only a few weeks before the supernova turns into a dense neutron star or an even denser black hole. And each galaxy produces a supernova only once every 50 to 100 years.
Studying supernovas helps scientists measure the size of the universe and study the birth of new chemical elements, says Bob Kirshner, professor of astronomy and chairman of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.
Berkeley's program, which has found more than 20 supernovas, was the first one undertaken with student assistance. Amateur efforts in the search for supernovas will become more common as computer programs and camera equipment improve and drop in cost, Mr. Pennypacker says.
Eventually, more colleges and even high schools will be able to use computers to retrieve images produced by shared banks of telescopes, then analyze what they see.
Pennypacker will help train the first group of high school teachers in Berkeley's astronomy education project this month at Boston's Museum of Science.