Hubble breaks new ground with discovery of distant exploding star

January 11, 2012
These three images taken by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope reveal the emergence of an exploding star, called a supernova. Nicknamed SN Primo, the exploding star belongs to a special class called Type Ia supernovae, which are distance markers used for studying dark energy and the expansion rate of the universe. The top image shows part of the Hubble Ultra Deep Field, the region where astronomers were looking for a supernova blast. The white box shows where the supernova is later seen. The bottom left image is a close-up of the field without the supernova. A new bright object, identified as the supernova, appears in the image at bottom right. Credit: Credit: NASA, ESA, A. Riess (Space Telescope Science Institute and The Johns Hopkins University), and S. Rodney (The Johns Hopkins University)

NASA's Hubble Space Telescope has looked deep into the distant universe and detected the feeble glow of a star that exploded more than 9 billion years ago. The sighting is the first finding of an ambitious survey that will help astronomers place better constraints on the nature of dark energy, the mysterious repulsive force that is causing the universe to fly apart ever faster.

"For decades, astronomers have harnessed the power of Hubble to unravel the mysteries of the universe," said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. "This new observation builds upon the revolutionary research using Hubble that won astronomers the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics, while bringing us a step closer to understanding the nature of which drives the cosmic acceleration." As an astronaut, Grunsfeld visited Hubble three times, performing a total of eight spacewalks to service and upgrade the observatory.

The stellar explosion, nicknamed SN Primo, belongs to a special class called , which are bright beacons used as distance markers for studying the of the universe. Type Ia likely arise when white dwarf stars, the burned-out cores of normal stars, siphon too much material from their companion stars and explode.

SN Primo is the farthest Type Ia supernova with its distance confirmed through spectroscopic observations. In these types of observations, a spectrum splits the light from a supernova into its constituent colors. By analyzing those colors, astronomers can confirm its distance by measuring how much the supernova's light has been stretched, or red-shifted, into near-infrared wavelengths because of the .

The supernova was discovered as part of a three-year Hubble program to survey faraway Type Ia supernovae, opening a new distance realm for searching for this special class of . The remote supernovae will help astronomers determine whether the exploding stars remain dependable cosmic yardsticks across vast distances of space in an epoch when the cosmos was only one-third its current age of 13.7 billion years.

Called the CANDELS+CLASH Supernova Project, the census uses the sharpness and versatility of Hubble's Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC3) to assist astronomers in the search for supernovae in near-infrared light and verify their distance with spectroscopy. CANDELS is the Cosmic Assembly Near-infrared Deep Extragalactic Legacy Survey and CLASH is the Cluster Lensing and Supernova Survey.

"In our search for supernovae, we had gone as far as we could go in optical light," said Adam Riess, the project's lead investigator, at the Space Telescope Science Institute and The Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md. "But it's only the beginning of what we can do in infrared light. This discovery demonstrates that we can use the Wide Field Camera 3 to search for supernovae in the ."

The new results were presented on Jan. 11 at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Austin, Texas.

The supernova team's search technique involved taking multiple near-infrared images over several months, looking for a supernova's faint glow. After the team spotted the stellar blast in October 2010, they used WFC3's spectrometer to verify SN Primo's distance and to decode its light, finding the unique signature of a Type Ia supernova. The team then re-imaged SN Primo periodically for eight months, measuring the slow dimming of its light.

By taking the census, the astronomers hope to determine the frequency of Type Ia supernovae during the early universe and glean insights into the mechanisms that detonated them.

"If we look into the early universe and measure a drop in the number of supernovae, then it could be that it takes a long time to make a Type Ia supernova," said team member Steve Rodney of The Johns Hopkins University. "Like corn kernels in a pan waiting for the oil to heat up, the stars haven't had enough time at that epoch to evolve to the point of explosion. However, if supernovae form very quickly, like microwave popcorn, then they will be immediately visible, and we'll find many of them, even when the universe was very young. Each supernova is unique, so it's possible that there are multiple ways to make a supernova."

If astronomers discover that Type Ia supernovae begin to depart from how they expect them to look, they might be able to gauge those changes and make the measurements of dark energy more precise. Riess and two other astronomers shared the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics for discovering dark energy 13 years ago, using Type Ia supernova to plot the universe's expansion rate.

Explore further: Hubble Snaps Images of a Pinwheel-Shaped Galaxy

Related Stories

Hubble Snaps Images of a Pinwheel-Shaped Galaxy

February 7, 2006

Looking like a child's pinwheel ready to be set a spinning by a gentle breeze, this dramatic spiral galaxy is one of the latest viewed by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope. Stunning details of the face-on spiral galaxy, cataloged ...

The best way to measure dark energy just got better

January 13, 2011

( -- Dark energy is a mysterious force that pervades all space, acting as a "push" to accelerate the Universe's expansion. Despite being 70 percent of the Universe, dark energy was only discovered in 1998 by two ...

Team finds Type Ia supernovae parents

August 11, 2011

Type Ia supernovae are violent stellar explosions whose brightness is used to determine distances in the universe. Observing these objects to billions of light years away has led to the discovery that the universe is expanding ...

G299.2-2.9, a middle-aged supernova remnant

October 13, 2011

( -- G299.2-2.9 is an intriguing supernova remnant found about 16,000 light years away in the Milky Way galaxy. Evidence points to G299.2-2.9 being the remains of a Type Ia supernova, where a white dwarf has grown ...

Origin of thermonuclear supernova discovered

January 11, 2012

( -- Using NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers have solved a longstanding mystery on the type of star, or so-called progenitor, which caused a supernova seen in a nearby galaxy. The finding yields ...

A magnified supernova

September 27, 2011

Supernovae are among astronomers most important tools for exploring the history of the universe. Their frequency allows us to examine how active star formation was, how heavy elements have developed, and the distance to galaxies ...

Recommended for you

Webcam on Mars Express surveys high-altitude clouds

October 17, 2017

An unprecedented catalogue of more than 21 000 images taken by a webcam on ESA's Mars Express is proving its worth as a science instrument, providing a global survey of unusual high-altitude cloud features on the Red Planet.

Microbes leave 'fingerprints' on Martian rocks

October 17, 2017

Scientists around Tetyana Milojevic from the Faculty of Chemistry at the University of Vienna are in search of unique biosignatures, which are left on synthetic extraterrestrial minerals by microbial activity. The biochemist ...

Astronomers identify new asynchronous short period polar

October 16, 2017

(—An international team of astronomers led by Gagik H. Tovmassian of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) has uncovered new details into the nature of a cataclysmic variable known as IGR J19552+0044. ...

The remarkable jet of the quasar 4C+19.44

October 16, 2017

Quasars are galaxies with massive black holes at their cores. So much energy is being radiated from near the nucleus of a quasar that it is much brighter than the rest of the entire galaxy. Much of that radiation is at radio ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.