December 18, 2008 #067 - SN 1987a

I have been a shortwave listener since I was about 7 or 8 years old. My grandparents had a console radio, about 4 feet tall in a polished mahogany wood case with a wonderful large white multi-band dial. It was full of warm glowing vacuum tubes, a boy's dream. It also had speakers the size of dinner plates which produced a great sound. I'm sure you have seen pictures of families gathered around these, listening to the old time radio shows. That was not what I wanted to hear. Give me the BBC, time signals, tiny far off voices from places unknown. I thrived on Morse code and other strange tones that floated through the ether. This was only the first of many receivers to come.

Fast forward a few years. Late one night in February 1987 I was lounging on the bed and listening to shortwave broadcasts on my Kenwood R-1000 receiver with a long wire antenna. I was still tuning through the frequencies, listening here and there, writing what stations and type of traffic I picked up. Then to my surprise I hit upon traffic between South America and the United States. I was listening to the operators, speaking in English, transmitting information about a supernova just discovered in the southern skies. One of the brightest an nearest in modern times. They were talking about SN 1987a but it had no designation at that time.

This supernova was discovered on the 23rd day of February by a Canadian astronomer, Ian Shelton. He was working at Las Campanas Observatory in Chile when he made the discovery in the Large Magellanic Cloud. That would be about 160,000 light years away but it was visible to the naked eye. In the next few months and even today there is much excitement and research going on to discover the secrets of this explosion and what it can reveal to astronomers and stellar physicists.

The purpose of the message was to disseminate astronomical data between observatories and astronomers. This would facilitate more resources being brought to bear to study the fast breaking event. When I think back to that night It still amazes me that I caught that traffic. What are the odds of being on the shortwave at that specific time and hitting that one frequency out of a multitude of possible frequencies. The shortwave bounce had to be just right for my spot on the earth to pick up that transmission. It was kind of like hitting the lottery to hear this breaking news before the rest of the world heard it. Even though I have never seen this wonder in the night sky I will have this memory to treasure!

Clear Sky - Rich

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