September 13, 2005
Hawaii Telescopes Record Cosmic Explosion
HONOLULU (AP) -- Telescopes atop Mauna Kea in Hawaii recorded the most distant cosmic explosion ever seen, probably caused by the collapse of a massive dying star, according to University of Hawaii astronomers.
Astronomers from Japan and Hawaii used the telescopes to measure a dying star some 12.8 billion light years away, at the edge of the known universe.
The burst released about as much energy as the sun will emit during its 10 billion year lifespan, according to Lennox Cowie, an astronomer with the university's Institute of Astronomy.
"It's very difficult to detect objects at this distance because they're very, very faint," Cowie said. "This is a very exciting gamma ray burst. It's quite dramatic."
Because gamma ray bursts last only a short time, scientists set up an automated communications network to alert them when NASA's Swift Gamma-Ray Burst satellite, launched last year, detected radiation so they could train the telescopes on the source.
The call came in early on Sept. 4, and university astronomer Paul Price aimed NASA's Infrared Telescope Facility on Mauna Kea and the Magnum telescope on Haleakala at the source of the radiation.
"Because these explosions are so bright, they give us the opportunity to study stellar birth and death in the most distant universe in a manner we could only dream about a couple of years ago," Price said.
As scientists look farther away, they are looking further back in time, he said. With new technology, they are likely to see a star even farther away, he said.
Cowie said that by studying gamma ray bursts, scientists will be able to learn more about the star formation of the universe, and how our sun formed.
Studying the formation of stars will also help scientists understand how various elements, including carbon, were formed.
"This is a very fundamental aspect of the origin of everything, including us," Cowie said.
The astronomy team, led by Tokyo Institute of Technology astronomer Nobuyuki Kawai, used the 27-foot Subaru telescope to measure the precise distance of the dying sun.
On the Net:
Subaru Telescope: http://www.naoj.org/