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Students stumble on a supernova

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In a world of ever-bigger Big Science, amateurs still sometimes scoop the pros. This weekend a new supernova is shining at its peak brightness in the galaxy M82 above the Big Dipper in the evening sky. The supernova is visible in good amateur telescopes as a new little pale-orange star marking the dim galaxy. Its discovery was a story no one could have predicted.

Amateur astronomers used to be the first to find many new cosmic events like this. Hunters for comets spent thousands of hours on cold nights carefully combing the sky with backyard telescopes. Now, robotic mountaintop observatories far outpace humans for such work, but the backyard amateurs refused to quit. They have adopted their own digital techniques and seek out niches of search space where the big robotic hunts aren’t going, and they continue to get their names on new comets.

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