What Alicia Soderberg knows for sure

Photo: Brian Wilson

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Alicia Soderberg, on Discovery
On January 9, 2008, Princeton astronomer Alicia Soderberg, who'd reserved time on a satellite telescope, began to review the new data. There was something unusual and inexplicably bright. Soderberg had picked the exact right place in the universe, at the exact right moment, and saw the birth of a supernova—an exploding star. Within hours, across the Northern Hemisphere, amateurs and professionals turned their telescopes to study an event that had never been seen before.

We called and e-mailed people. I was nervous—but you have to be ready to be wrong sometimes.

A lot of people don't analyze their data for months. I check right away, and this was one of those cases where something extraordinary was happening. The telescope sends an image, like one from a digital camera, to a NASA website (www.swift.gsfc.nasa.gov). This shows you need only a cell phone, a laptop, and a bit of energy, and you can make a big discovery.

Everyone asks, in the context of religion or academics, "Why are we here? Is there life on other planets?" All of these are fundamental questions—and they will be answered by astronomers. 

As told to Jack Otter