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Supernova Star

Ken Kurasaki

An amateur astronomer in Japan is trying to help document stellar explosions. He's built a small, home-made observatory. And his discoveries are benefiting scientists around the world.

The slopes of Mount Zao, overlooking Yamagata City. This is where Koichi Itagaki built his observatory. Itagaki set it up in 1980 using his own personal funds. Since then, he has gradually added more equipment and upgraded it.

"The forecast said it was going to be clear. But after the sun set, it suddenly started to cloud over."
Koichi Itagaki / Amateur astronomer

Itagaki's most important item is his 60-centimeter telescope. The images taken through the telescope are analyzed here. He checks each of the images, one by one, looking for new supernovas.

"I compare this new image with an old one, to see if any new stars have appeared."
Koichi Itagaki / Amateur astronomer

The image on the right shows Itagaki's hundredth supernova. He immediately spotted a faint trail of light that wasn't present in earlier images.

"I look at each image for just five to ten seconds. On a clear night, I view about two thousand images."
Koichi Itagaki / Amateur astronomer

It's intense, repetitive work. But Itagaki managed to discover ten supernovas last year alone.

"There is no secret to spotting supernovas. You just have to look at a lot of galaxies. It's really simple."
Koichi Itagaki / Amateur astronomer

He works late into the night, often scanning the skies until 4 a.m. When he's not doing astronomical work, Itagaki runs a company that produces nuts and snacks. No matter how late he's been working at his observatory, he gets to work at 8 o'clock every morning. Itagaki has always had the support of his wife, Chikako.

"My husband is not an ordinary person. For one thing, he doesn't sleep at all at night. If the sky's clear, he heads up the mountain. It's like his home."
Chikako Itagaki

He's been doing this for about 35 years -- heading up to the observatory straight from his factory.

Itagaki feels his efforts have paid off...His observations were recently recognized by astronomers.

A nova he discovered two years ago helped them make a breakthrough.

A report in last month's issue of the international science magazine Nature on the origins of interstellar matter draws on Itagaki's discoveries.

"Even though all I did was discover something that was already there, I did make a tiny contribution. It really motivated me and made me want to do it more."
Koichi Itagaki / Amateur astronomer

Night after night, Itagaki continues to scan the skies -- driven by his passion for finding new supernovas.

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