Alex Filippenko

Research Expertise and Interest

supernovae, active galaxies, black holes, gamma-ray bursts, expansion of the universe

Research Description

Alex Filippenko and his collaborators are determining the nature of the progenitor stars and the explosion mechanisms of different types of supernovae and gamma-ray bursts. He is also using supernovae as cosmological distance indicators, and he was a member of both teams that discovered (in 1998) the accelerating expansion of the Universe, probably driven by "dark energy" -- a discovery that was honored with the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics to the teams' leaders. He also works on quantifying the physical properties of quasars and active galaxies, and he searches for black holes in both X-ray binary stars and nearby galactic nuclei. His group has developed the 0.76-meter Katzman Automatic Imaging Telescope (KAIT), which is conducting one of the world's most successful searches for relatively nearby supernovae, having discovered more than 1000 of them. He is a frequent user of Lick Observatory, the 10-meter Keck telescopes, and the Hubble Space Telescope.

In the News

Heaviest Neutron Star to Date Is a ‘Black Widow’ Eating Its Mate

A dense, collapsed star spinning 707 times per second — making it one of the fastest spinning neutron stars in the Milky Way galaxy — has shredded and consumed nearly the entire mass of its stellar companion and, in the process, grown into the heaviest neutron star observed to date. Alex Filippenko, Distinguished Professor of Astronomy at the University of California, Berkeley, explores further.

The Ultimate Fate of a Star Shredded by a Black Hole

In 2019, astronomers observed the nearest example to date of a star that was shredded, or “spaghettified,” after approaching too close to a massive black hole. That tidal disruption of a sun-like star by a black hole 1 million times more massive than itself took place 215 million light years from Earth. Luckily, this was the first such event bright enough that astronomers from the University of California, Berkeley, could study the optical light from the stellar death, specifically the light’s polarization, to learn more about what happened after the star was torn apart.

Featured in the Media

Please note: The views and opinions expressed in these articles are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or positions of UC Berkeley.
April 29, 2020
Joel Rubin, Amina Khan
Emergency shelter-in-place orders due to the COVID-19 pandemic have closed laboratories and disrupted research projects all over the world, leaving scientists scrambling to protect their work and prepare to resurrect it. Discussing the problem, electrical engineering and computer sciences professor Randy Katz, vice chancellor for research, says that a break of a few weeks isn't likely to cause irreparable damage, but the losses will be hard to avoid if the rules are in place for months." Animals don't live forever," he says, noting that one example is the necessity of testing mice bred to have a particular genetic condition or disease at a certain age, which gives researchers limited time frames for their work. Another example is disrupted work by Berkeley scientists to measure snowpack at field stations in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. That data guides state officials who decide how much water will be available for consumption or crop irrigation. "We obviously need to go when there is snow," he says. "If we wait too long, the opportunity is lost." Also weighing in on the disruptions, astronomy professor Alex Filippenko says he thought he was safe when he got special permission to take a last look at supernovas and other celestial objects related to their study of the current rate of expansion in the universe from a remote observing room on campus connected to the W.M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii's Mauna Kea, but then he heard that first night that the telescope was being shut down. He scrambled to make other plans, but by the time he'll be able to look again, he says, those phenomena will have vanished.
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