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An international team of US and UK astronomers have spotted the most distance explosion, and possibly the most distant object, ever seen in the universe, according to a new paper to appear in the Astrophysical Journal.
University of Warwick astronomer Dr. Andrew Levan was one of the first members of that team to spot the exploding star, known as a gamma-ray burst, which are the brightest events to occur in the universe.
This explosion in particular was briefly as bright as several thousand galaxies. To put that in perspective -- it was more than a million million times brighter than our Sun.
With such luminosity, researchers were able to detect it with satellite based observatories at an extreme distance of 13.14 billion light years -- putting it 96% of the way to the edge of the Universe, making it the most distant object ever seen.
The gamma-ray burst was first detected by NASA's Swift satellite in April 2009. The research team then spent two years carefully examining the data to determine whether or not it was a real record-breaker. "The more we examined this burst, the better it looked," Levan said in a statement.
While these exploding stars themselves last for mere minutes, their fading "afterglow" light remains observable with large telescopes for days or even weeks.
The research team was able to show the distance by performing a sophisticated analysis of the light to determine its "redshift," or how much the light has shifted towards the red end of the light spectrum. This happens because of the so-called Doppler effect, which causes the wavelength of light to be stretched when the light's source is moving away from us.
Because the universe is expanding, measuring an object's redshift, and hence its velocity, allows astronomers to deduce its distance, because objects that are farther away are moving more quickly. In this particular case, Levan and his team found a redshift of 9.4, blowing away the previous record, a gamma-ray burst that measured in at 8.2.
For Levan, the find is undoubtedly meaningful because of what it can tell us about the origins of the universe. "The race to find distant objects stems from the desire to find and study the first stars and galaxies that formed in the universe, in the first few hundred million years after the Big Bang," he explains.
“By looking very far away, because the light takes so long on its journey to reach the Earth, astronomers are effectively able to look back in time to this early era."
“This gamma-ray burst shows us that there is a lot of action going on in the Universe which we can’t currently see,” Said Professor Nial Tanvir, from the University of Leicester and the leader of the Hubble Space Telescope portion of the research program.
“Our observations show us that even the Hubble Space Telescope is only seeing the tip of the iceberg in the distant Universe”.