Discovering a supernova
Why am I an astronomer?
This is a very hard question to answer, especially when one is born in a country like Brazil, where the majority of the population has no access to good education. But I was fortunate to be born in a middle class family and could actually dream of having a career. So, when I ask myself why am I an astronomer? there is a very simple answer to it: I am fascinated by the sky and since I was a little kid I wanted to know more about it. Of course, I had to convince my parents and the society that I had made a reasonable choice and that I could survive as a scientist. They were expecting me to follow a more traditional path, just like my 2 brothers who had chosen engineering and medical school and my sister who is an architect. However, I was always very persistent and they gave up on convincing me to do something else, when they realized that I was happy following my dreams.
But during the stressful years of graduate school, and the searching for jobs that came afterwards, I was begining to forget how and why I got into this business. Fortunately, in January 97 I experienced a wonderful feeling that reminded me all about why I decided to become an astronomer: I discovered a supernova! It was a serendipitous discovery driven only by my curiosity. I was observing at the ESO1.52m telescope in la Silla, Chile, when that happened. While taking long-slit spectra of one of the galaxies of my sample I noticed something peculiar on the tv guider of the telescope. There was an extra star as bright as any other star in the field that was not in my finding chart. I made some quick calculations and found out that the star was actually on the border of NGC1536 (just a fuzzy object on the tv screen). This telescope has no imaging instrument, only a Boller and Chivens Spectrograph, so I decided to rotate the spectrograph and pass the slit on that direction. My boyfriend at that time, who is my husband now, was on duty that night in another telescope and coincidentally came for a quick visit when I was about to find out whether that was a supernova or not. After a few minutes of integration, I retrieved the spectra and a beautiful spectrum full of P-Cygni profiles appeared on the screen. Since neither of us worked with SNe, Tommy went to the library to get a few books while I continued observing other galaxies of my sample. After looking at a few spectra in the literature we were able to classify it as a type II SN.
I don't think I slept very much after the observing run was over. I was too excited to find out whether that was a newly discovered supernova or not. I only believed that I had really discovered a new supernova when I talked to a supernova expert, Stefano Benetti, who happened to be on the mountain. Just by looking at the galaxy he was able to tell me that no other supernova had been detected in such a galaxy. He arranged that an image should be taken with the 0.9m telescope as soon as possible during that night.
In the begining of the night he came to visit m at the 1.52m and I saw the image of what I had discovered. Together we wrote a circular to the IAU (IAU6537) and SN1997D became news in the first pages of the major newspapers in Brazil. My life has changed since then. This particular event showed me the beauty of astronomy that I was begining to forget. The first paper on SN1997D was published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters.
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