The Most Distant Light in the Universe?

Apr 28, 2009 2:37pm

The little smudge in the telescope images may be the most distant object ever seen — a dying star, exploding in what astrophysicists call a gamma-ray burst, 13.065 billion light-years from Earth. Since the Big Bang is currently estimated to have taken place 13.7 billion years ago, the explosion happened when the universe was very young — five percent as old as it is now.  The explosion was spotted by several telescopes at 3:55 a.m. EDT on April 23.  The light literally came to us from somewhere near the edge of space. The image above came from the Gemini observatory in Hawaii.  The one below is combined from several sensors on board NASA’s Swift orbiting telescope, designed specifically to look for these most spectacular of cosmic events. "We’re seeing the demise of a star — and probably the birth of a black hole — in one of the universe’s earliest stellar generations," said Derek Fox of Penn State University. A light-year is a little less than six trillion miles.  Do some math, and if the explosion was 13 billion light-years away, it was about 76,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 miles off.  “This makes it easily the most distant object ever seen by humanity,” said Edo Berger of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.  The European Southern Observatory, which detected the explosion too, agreed. NASA scientists think other objects, imaged by the Hubble telescope, may have been farther away — but they weren’t seen just as they exploded.  The explosion was of "modest brightness," said astrophysicists, and lasted only about ten seconds.  But it was violent beyond description.  Scientists say gamma-ray bursts, which happen when stars run out of fuel for the nuclear fusion that powers them, are the "most powerful events in the universe," in the words of Britain’s Science and Technology Council, destroying everything around them for light-years around them.  For now, the new find is only known by the name GRB 090423.  Poetic alternatives welcomed.

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