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Home > Amateur Astronomy, Gamma Ray Astronomy, Novae, Supernovae > Night owls: meet the duo of amateur astronomers in Japan who discovered the star that delivered a “shocking surprise” to NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope

Night owls: meet the duo of amateur astronomers in Japan who discovered the star that delivered a “shocking surprise” to NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope

August 12th, 2010
Click to read Japan Times article about Nishiyama & Kabashima

Click to read Japan Times article about Nishiyama & Kabashima

On March 11, 2010, the evening skies were clear over the town of Miyaki in Saga Prefecture on the island of Kyūshū, Japan. Two elderly stargazers, though comfortably retired from their jobs, were just getting to work in their Miyaki Argenteus Observatory.

All night, Koichi Nishiyama, 72, snapped pictures of the sky through the barrel of a 16-inch-wide reflecting telescope. His observing partner, Fujio Kabashima, 70, used computer software to compare the images with shots of the same patches of sky taken on previous nights.

In the pre-dawn hours, Nishiyama and Kabashima finally nabbed themselves a nova — the sudden, short-lived, and dramatic brightening of a formerly inconspicuous star. This particular star, V407 Cyg, lies about 9,000 light-years from Earth in the constellation Cygnus the Swan. Nishiyama and Kabashima determined that V407 Cyg had flared to 10 times its former brightness.

The amateurs reported the observation to astronomer Hiroyuki Maehara at Kyoto University, who notified his colleagues around the world so they could organize follow-up observations. Three other Japanese observers — Tadashi Kojima, Kazuo Sakaniwa and Akihiko Tago — reported the same nova the next day, March 11.

PR buttonOn March 11, NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope started picking up gamma rays streaming from a new source in Cygnus, which turned out to be V407 Cyg. This was totally unexpected and out of character for a nova. It’s the topic of a major press release from Goddard today and the subject of an electronic publication in the journal Science. (Actually, Nishiyama and Kabashima are co-authors on the Science paper.)

Fermi's Large Area Telescope saw no sign of a nova in 19 days of data prior to March 10 (left), but the eruption is obvious in data from the following 19 days (right). The images show the rate of gamma rays with energies greater than 100 million electron volts (100 MeV); brighter colors indicate higher rates. Credit: NASA/DOE/Fermi LAT Collaboration

Fermi's Large Area Telescope saw no sign of a nova in 19 days of data prior to March 10 (left), but the eruption is obvious in data from the following 19 days (right). The images show the rate of gamma rays with energies greater than 100 million electron volts (100 MeV); brighter colors indicate higher rates. Credit: NASA/DOE/Fermi LAT Collaboration


Sky lovers
The Fermi discovery is a perfect moment to celebrate hard-working amateur observers around the world like Nishiyama and Kabashima. These folks make significant and valuable contributions to astronomy every day.

So let’s give these sleepless gentlemen from Saga Prefecture their nova-nabbing props, and in their own words. Special thanks to Hiromitsu Takahashi of Hiroshima University for relaying my questions by email to Nishiyama and Kabashima and translating their responses.

gogblog: To date, how many novae and or other objects you have spotted and reported officially?

Nishiyama & Kabashima: “We started observations on August 1st 2007. Up to now, we have discovered 53 novae and one supernova (SN2009ls, on November 26, 2009). Of the novae, 13 are galactic and 40 extragalactic.”

Just a quick pause for the science literacy cause: “Galactic” refers to novae in our Milky Way Galaxy. “Extragalactic” means it happened in other galaxies.

And let’s be clear about another thing: Spotting 53 novae in three years is an extraordinary achievement for any human observer. In 2008, they discovered five in a single year, tying the record set in 1991 by Australian Paul Camilleri. In March 2008, the pair received a special award for their achievements from the Astronomical Society of Japan.

What better person to put it in perspective than astronomy author Stephen James O’Meara, one of the most celebrated amateur observers in the business.

“Nova hunters are a dedicated group of amateur astronomers who demonstrate infinite patience,” Steve says. “What does seem to stand out about Nishiyama and Kabashima’s success is its magnitude. Most nova hunters spend years searching before they find one. Bill Liller (in Chile), for instance, has been searching in earnest, I believe, since the mid-1980s. Yet Nishiyama and Kabashima have nearly tied him in galactic nova discoveries in only three years time! That’s almost unheard of. It means that either their observing conditions are exceptional or that they are exceptionally fortunate when they do have clear skies to nab most of the few novae that occur briefly in the Northern skies each year.”

Japanese amateur astronomers discovered Nova Cygni 2010 in an image taken on March 10 (4:08 a.m. Japan Standard Time, March 11). The erupting star (circled) was 10 times brighter than in an image taken several days earlier. Credit: K. Nishiyama and F. Kabashima/H. Maehara, Kyoto Univ.

Japanese amateur astronomers discovered Nova Cygni 2010 in an image taken on March 10 (4:08 a.m. Japan Standard Time, March 11). The erupting star (in center of circles) was 10 times brighter than in an image taken several days earlier. Credit: K. Nishiyama and F. Kabashima/H. Maehara, Kyoto Univ.


And it’s not like Nishiyama and Kabashima don’t have any competition. . .

gogblog: How many other amateur observers in Japan are doing this kind of work?

Nishiyama & Kabashima: “There are about 50 amateurs searching for supernovae in Japan. Among them, the number of the people who have really discovered them (and are still observing actively) is about 10. In the case of novae, because the observation requires relatively simple equipment, many more people are searching. However, the number of the discoverers is similar to that of the supernovae (about 10).”

gogblog: Is there friendly competition between the observers to be the first to discover new objects?

Nishiyama & Kabashima: “Yes. We think all the observers are not only rivals but also friends. Actually, we send/receive emails very frequently with some of them — for example, Hideo Nishimura in Kakekawa city, Shizuoka prefecture, who has discovered the same number of galactic novae as us. Also, Koichi Itagaki in Yamagata city, Yamagata prefecture, who is one of the leading discoverers of supernovae.”



Despite getting through many nights on just three hours of sleep, Nishiyama and Kabashima appear to have inexhaustible enthusiasm for nova hunting. This is not really surprising, considering that the word “amateur” is French for “lover of,” ultimately derived from the Latin for “lover.”

gogblog: After discovering so many objects, what motivates you to continue? What holds your interest about this work?

Nishiyama & Kabashima: “Following our discoveries, many researchers take the spectra and study them. Some of them contact us to ask for more information or to give feedback, such as confirmation of the brightening. Therefore, we understand our activities are helpful for the research of astronomy and astrophysics. It’s our motivation. We really hope that our discoveries are useful for the research. We try to observe the sky every night with little sleep if the weather is fine.”

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OH AND DID I MENTION? All opinions and opinionlike objects in this blog are mine alone and NOT those of NASA or Goddard Space Flight Center. And while we’re at it, links to websites posted on this blog do not imply endorsement of those websites by NASA.




  1. ROSELI TIEKO
    August 14th, 2010 at 13:45 | #1

    Parabéns aos Senhores.

    Gostaria de poder entrar em contato para poder trocar idéias de como posso colaborar com imagens. Obrigada. Tieko

  2. Juan Gonzalez
    September 25th, 2010 at 18:16 | #2

    What was the effect of this explosion over the earth biota ?? Do you have some ideas ??

  3. November 12th, 2010 at 22:19 | #3

    if the ions cureved on an magnetic curve translusent would thay exced the speed of light ?? and would you be able to detect them

    • dpendick
      November 16th, 2010 at 14:11 | #4

      Ions can’t exceed the speed of light, assuming Einstein is correct–and all the evidence we have so far says he is correct. Thanks for reading the blog!

  4. November 15th, 2010 at 21:24 | #5

    Hey everyone realize I have no credentials but if i was going to assert i know exactly why supernovas make gamm rays, exactly why some create black holes, and most important how all this can explain the gamma ray bubbles in the middle of the milky way, would anyone be willing to hear me out and not rip off the idea because im not sure how to copyright protect myself?

  5. November 15th, 2010 at 22:52 | #6

    i realize the nova wont hurt us, but thats not what im trying to get at just that i haven’t been heard out yet and probably because fermi hasn’t even looked at our own sun long enough to see if it emits bubbls of any kind of energy above or bleow it either so the evidence of my theory does not exist yet but the theory is sound in its logic trust me

  6. dpendick
    September 25th, 2010 at 18:43 | #7

    Thankfully, no effect at all! The nova is so far away, it cannot affect Earth.

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