When most people look up into the night sky, they feel awe at the constellations, gasp at the Milky Way when under the darkest skies and thrill over shooting stars.
Patrick Wiggins hunts.
The amateur astronomer, who lives in Stansbury Park, spends many of his nights doing work for professional astronomers and observatories from across the world. In the downtime in between those assignments, he systematically scans the sky looking for anomalies.
“In between the work I do for NASA and other observatories, supernova searches work really well in the down hour or two I have between other projects,” Wiggins said. “It’s a good way to fill up some extra time.”
This year, he discovered his third and fourth supernovas, an impressive feat for someone who isn’t using the world’s most powerful telescopes. The automated telescopes run by the European Space Agency or the ATLAS telescope in Hawaii make supernova discoveries more frequently, but amateurs rarely find evidence of exploding stars in the cosmos.
Wiggins, a member of the Salt Lake Astronomical Society, gained recognition from astronomers around the world when he recorded a supernova in the nearby bright galaxy NGC6946. Then, in the early morning of Nov. 30, he found yet another supernova when he noticed a faint blip on a galaxy he had photographed in the Ursa Major, or Big Dipper, constellation. That dot was in the spiral galaxy NGC5480, more than 85 million light-years from Earth.
He uses a computer program to direct his telescope to photograph 295 specific parts of the sky he identified because of the brightness and other characteristics of galaxies in those spots. He then downloads the images and manually compares them from night to night. If he finds a light smudge that wasn’t there before, he then sends it off for verification to a professional astronomy group.
“It takes perseverance, and there is a little luck involved,” Wiggins said. “Without the perseverance, you’d have to be very lucky.”
Wiggins’ devotion impresses Joe Bauman, vice president of the Salt Lake Astronomical Society.
“The amount of dedication and hard work that an amateur must do to find a supernova is staggering — typically it requires hundreds of hours of painstaking photography and comparison to find one,” Bauman said.
In addition to his four supernova discoveries, Wiggins had a hand in finding five minor planets orbiting the sun. He named one of those Univofutah after the school where he does outreach work for the Department of Physics & Astronomy. Discoverers don’t get to name supernovas.
“Patrick’s discoveries highlight the importance of a strong link between amateur astronomers and professionals,” said Benjamin Bromley, professor and chairman of the department. “He’s patient and methodical, and it pays off: He can coax out a cool discovery like a supernova, something that people don’t fully understand. And when he does, the professionals spin on a dime, aiming high-tech telescopes to get the most out of his discovery. It can be a great partnership!”
For Utahns interested in getting to know the night sky better, Bauman recommends joining the Salt Lake Astronomical Society, which has a $20 membership fee for an entire family. Those who sign up can, after a time, check out the society’s telescopes to do some exploration on their own.
“SLAS is excited to help people learn about astronomy and to do their own observing and/or astrophotography,” Bauman said.
The group also holds free star parties throughout the warmer times of the year and allows the public to look through its large telescopes at the Stansbury Park Observatory Complex for free.
Wiggins said some of the thrill of discovery has worn off with his fourth supernova in the books, but he continues to methodically document the sky.
“The thing that keeps me going is knowing that I am actually contributing to science,” he said. “It’s not just fun, but it’s the fact that 100 years from now, these data will be just as valid as they are today.”
Charting outer space
Patrick Wiggins has made several discoveries throughout his time observing the night sky as an amateur astronomer.
Date • Name
Nov. 2, 1999 • 80180/Elko
Nov. 13, 1999 • 75072/Timerskine
Nov. 6, 2007 • 361690/Laurelanmaurer
Sept. 8, 2008 • 391795/Univofutah
Dec. 6, 2008 • 237277/Nevaruth
Date • Name
Jan. 14, 2014 • 2014G
June 17, 2015 • 2015Q
May 14, 2017• 2017eaw
Nov. 30, 2017 • 2017iro
Correction: Dec. 20, 7 p.m. • An earlier version misstated the fact that five minor planets partially discovered by Patrick Wiggins revolve around the sun.
Clarification: Dec. 20, 7 p.m. • Patrick Wiggins discovered five planets in Earth's solar system with the help of others.