What was SN 1961V?

NGC 1058. Image credit: Bob Ferguson and Richard Desruisseau/Adam Block/NOAO/AURA/NSF

Up there in the sky! It’s a supernova! It’s a Luminous Blue Variable eruption! It’s…. well, we’re not sure….

In July of 1961, a star in the spiral galaxy NGC 1058 blew up, but in a very odd fashion. The time to reach its peak brightness was several months as well as a slow decline including a three year plateau. Narrow spectral lines revealed a slow expansion velocity of 2,000 km sec-1. Some proposed it was an unusual supernova. Others claimed it was an especially energetic eruption of a Luminous Blue Variable (LBV) star like Eta Carinae. The infamous Fritz Zwicky called it a “Type V Supernova” which meant a supernova in name only, but could be anything as it was simply an “impostor”. For nearly 50 years, astronomers have been trying to sort out what this supernova impostor truly was.

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