Information on the historical supernovae

Michael Richmond
March 13, 2009

There have been a handful of supernovae in our own Milky Way galaxy which were observed and recorded by human civilizations in the past two millenia. This information is taken from Clark and Stephenson, "The Historical Supernovae." It may be hard to find, but it's a good source of information.

Below, I refer to "Type Ia" and "Type II" supernovae. These are two different types of explosions. Type Ia are slightly brighter, and occur when a white dwarf star sucks too much matter from the outer parts of a companion star, and suffers runaway thermonuclear reactions. Type II are a bit fainter, occuring when young, massive stars run out of nuclear fuel at their centers, collapse, and explode. You can read more about the differences at

So, here's the list!

  SN 185    record from China (a single text)
            may have been visible for 8 months, or for 20 months
            appeared in the constellation of Centaurus (which is not
                now visible from the continental US, but only from places
                farther south), roughly between alpha and beta Cen
            a shell of radio emission, G135.4-2.3, is the likely
                remant of this explosion.  There is also weak optical
                emission in partial shell, called RCW 86.
            hard to guess the type

  SN 393    record from China (two almost identical texts)
            visible for 7 months
            appeared within the curve of the tail of Scorpius
            any one of three radio sources in that area could be its remnant
            no information on the type

  SN 1006   Very bright!  Probably brightest SN on the record, at mag -9?
            records from China (6 texts), Japan (7 texts), Korea (1 text),
                Arab dominions (5 texts), Europe (4 + 2 possible references).
            appeared in Lupus (a southern constellation); texts provide
                a good position
            we identify radio source PKS 1459-41 as remant of this SN;
                thin wisps of optical emission have been reported
            X-ray spectral measurements of element abundances and radio
                measurements of the progenitor's wind imply this was a type Ia

  SN 1054   records from China (5 texts, 4 independent) and 
                Japan (3 texts, 2 independent)
            visible in daylight for 23 days, probably mag = -5
                visible at night for about 20 months 
            appeared in Taurus, at position of modern Crab Nebula
            very well known radio, optical, X-ray remnant: Crab Nebula
            type II

  SN 1181   records from China (2 texts) and Japan (6 texts)
            visible at night for about 185 days, peak around mag = -1?
            appeared in Cassiopeia
            radio source 3C58 may be remnant from this event
            hard to tell if type Ia or II
  SN 1572   aka Tycho's supernova, because he studied it VERY carefully
            records from China (2 texts), Korea (1 text) and Europe (lots)
            visible at night for 15 months, peak around mag = -4
            appeared in Cassiopeia
            Tycho's precise measurements show that radio source G120.1+1.4
                 is the remnant, and optical emission has been seen, too.
            type Ia
  SN 1604   aka Kepler's supernova, because he studied it carefully
            records from China (3 texts), Korea (1 very good text), Europe
            visible at night for 366 days, peak around mag = -3
            appeared in Ophiuchus, in the Milky Way
            Kepler's measurements show that the radio source 3C 358
                 is the remnant, and optical emission has been identified
            probably type II
And here the rough positions of these events on the sky:
  SN           Right Ascension  (1950)  Declination     constellation
 185             14h 32m                   -60 20        Centaurus
 393             17h 11m                   -38 20        Scorpius
1006             14h 59m                   -41 45        Lupus
1054             05h 31m 31s               +21 59        Taurus
1181             02h 02m                   +64 37        Cassiopeia
1572             00h 22m 30s               +63 51        Cassiopeia
1604             17h 27m 42s               -21 27        Ophiuchus