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Most Distant Explosion in Universe Detected; Smashes Previous Record

WASHINGTON, D.C.--Scientists using the NASA Swift satellite and several ground-based telescopes, including Palomar Observatory's robotic 60-inch telescope, have detected the most distant explosion yet, a gamma-ray burst from the edge of the visible universe.

This powerful burst, likely marking the death of a massive star as it collapsed into a black hole, was detected on September 4. It comes from an era soon after stars and galaxies first formed, about 500 million to 1 billion years after the Big Bang. The science team cannot yet determine the nature of the exploded star; a detailed analysis is forthcoming.

The 60-inch telescope at Palomar Observatory, which is owned and operated by the California Institute of Technology, observed the burst at visible wavelengths. At about the same time, a team led by Daniel Reichart of the University of North Carolina undertook near-infrared observations with the SOAR (Southern Observatory for Astrophysical Research) telescope, located in Chile. A bright near-infrared source was detected in the SOAR observations but completely absent in the Palomar data.

Building upon these pieces of information, a team led by Nobuyuki Kawai of the Tokyo Institute of Technology used the Subaru Observatory on Mauna Kea, in Hawaii, to confirm the distance and fine-tune the redshift measurement to 6.29 via a technique called spectroscopy. A redshift of 6.29 translates to a distance of about 13 billion light-years from Earth. The universe is thought to be 13.7 billion years old.

An ordinary afterglow would be easily detected by both facilities, but the fact that the afterglow was not seen by the Palomar 60-inch visible imager, but was readily detected by the SOAR infra-red imager alerted Reichart to the possibility that the afterglow was located at the edge of the universe. For such distant objects, hydrogen in the intergalactic medium absorbs visible rays but not infrared rays. Hence, invisibility in the visible spectrum indicated that the object was extremely far away.

"This is uncharted territory," said Reichart, who spearheaded the distance measurement. "This burst smashes the old distance record by 500 million light-years. We are finally starting to see the remnants of some of the oldest objects in the universe."

The Caltech team, led by Derek Fox, until recently a postdoctoral fellow and now a professor at the Pennsylvania State University, and Caltech graduate student Brad Cenko, did the actual observations with the Palomar telescope.

"The key step in identifying these much sought-after gamma-ray bursts is the dual combination of detection in the near-infrared and non-detection in the visible," says Fox. "We sincerely hope that the 60-inch will continue not detecting more gamma-ray bursts!"

"I am elated that the Palomar 60-inch telescope contributed to the first vital step in inferring the great distance to this burst," added Cenko, who spent the last two years robotocizing the 60-inch telescope. "The existence of such distant GRBs has been postulated for quite some time, but the detection makes me feel secure that I have a sound thesis topic."

Shri Kulkarni, the principal investigator of the Palomar 60-inch robotic telescope and the MacArthur Professor of Astronomy and Planetary Science at Caltech, noted that "the discovery has highlighted the important niche for smaller telescopes, especially robotic telescopes, in undertaking cutting-edge research for objects literally at the edge of the universe. We have hit paydirt, thanks to Caltech's investment in the 60-inch telescope."

The only object ever discovered at a greater distance was a quasar at a redshift of 6.4. Whereas quasars are supermassive black holes containing the mass of billions of stars, this burst comes from a single star. Yet gamma-ray bursts might be plentiful, according to Donald Lamb of the University of Chicago.

Scientists measure cosmic distances via redshift, the extent to which light is "shifted" towards the red (lower energy) part of the electromagnetic spectrum during its long journey across the universe. The greater the distance, the higher the redshift.

The September 4 burst is named GRB 050904, for the date it was detected. The previous most distant gamma-ray burst had a redshift of 4.5.

"We designed Swift to look for faint bursts coming from the edge of the universe," said Neil Gehrels of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, who is the Swift principal investigator. "Now we've got one, and it's fascinating. For the first time we can learn about individual stars from near the beginning of time. There are surely many more out there."

Written by Robert Tindol

Caltech Media Relations