The farthest supernova yet for measuring cosmic history

January 9, 2013
Supernova SCP-0401, nicknamed “Mingus,” was collected by the Hubble Space Telescope in 2004 but could not be positively identified until after the installation of a new camera that serendipitously acquired more data. Credit: Space Telescope Science Institute

In 2004 the Supernova Cosmology Project based at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory used the Hubble Space Telescope to find a tantalizing supernova that appeared to be almost 10 billion light-years distant. But researchers had to wait years until a new camera was installed on the Hubble before they could confirm the spectrum and light curve of supernova SCP-0401—the supernova furthest back in time useful for precise measures of the expansion history of the universe.

What if you had a "Wayback Television Set" and could watch an entire month of ancient prehistory unfold before your eyes in real time? David Rubin of the U.S. Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) presented just such a scenario to the (AAS) meeting in Long Beach, CA, when he announced the discovery of a striking : a with a redshift of 1.71 that dates back 10 billion years in time. Labeled SN SCP-0401, the is exceptional for its detailed spectrum and precision color measurement, unprecedented in a supernova so distant.

"This is the most distant supernova anyone has ever found for doing dependable cosmology," says Rubin, a member of the international Supernova Cosmology Project (SCP) based at Berkeley Lab. "The most important unanswered question we have about the nature of dark energy is whether it varies over time – whether it affects the differently in different eras. With SN SCP-0401, we have the first example of a well-measured supernova sufficiently far away to study the expansion history of the universe from almost 10 billion years ago."

The SCP is headed by astrophysicist Saul Perlmutter, a faculty senior scientist in Berkeley Lab's Physics Division and a professor of physics at the University of California, Berkeley, who puts it this way: "Imagine you're channel surfing and you come across live news coverage of an – and then you see the dateline that says it's July 22nd, 9,947,989,219 BCE. By August 9 the supernova is at its brightest and starts to fade, but you get to watch the whole thing – even though, before the news could ever reach your TV, our solar system had to form, and then our planet, and intelligent life had to evolve on Earth."

Live-at-the-scene coverage has special advantages. While the light curves of most supernovae with redshifts above 1.5 are either incomplete or not cosmologically useful, because their colors can't be accurately measured, our imaginary Wayback TV broadcast, says Perlmutter, "has enough high-resolution information to allow us to confidently compare this ancient supernova with much more recent astronomical events."

Wayback TV is imaginary, but not SN SCP-0401's high-resolution details. The SCP's analysis of the new supernova will appear in the January 20, 2013 issue of the Astrophysical Journal.

Most supernovae begin as stars whose cores collapse, but a Type Ia supernova, in the simplest model, begins as a white dwarf star borrowing mass from a companion star; when it reaches critical mass, it erupts in a titanic thermonuclear explosion. While not identical, Type Ia's are more similar in brightness than any other type of supernova, and their variability can be accurately corrected for comparison.

This makes them excellent "standard candles" for measuring cosmic distances – the dimmer they appear, the farther away they are, and their distance can be confidently measured. At the same time, their redshift is a direct gauge of how much the universe has expanded since the supernova exploded.

The installation of Hubble’s new Wide Field Camera 3 in 2009 would lead to the eventual confirmation of Supernova SCP-0401. Credit: NASA

Measuring the history of expansion ultimately depends on comparing distance and redshift for enough Type Ia's over a long expanse of time; this is how accelerating expansion, propelled by dark energy, was independently found by two competing teams and announced in 1998. For this discovery, in 2011 Saul Perlmutter divided the Nobel Prize in Physics with Brian Schmidt and Adam Riess of the competing High-z Supernova Search Team.

The new supernova Rubin announced at the AAS meeting was first spotted in a supernova survey conducted by the Supernova Cosmology Project using the (HST) in 2004, part of a scheduling sequence in which the two teams shared alternate scans of the sky.

"We were looking for supernovae so far away that they really required the HST, not just to detect them but so we could separate them from their host galaxies, in hopes of getting clean spectra," says Rob Knop, now of Quest University Canada, who headed the SCP's search strategy in 2004 and wrote the software that identified likely candidates. Following an SCP tradition of nicknaming candidates after composers, Knop and colleague Rachel Gibbons, both then at Vanderbilt University, named the new contender "Mingus" after the jazz composer.

A needle in a haystack far, far away

Mingus was so distant it skirted the edge of invisibility, like trying to see a firefly all the way across the United States. And it was red – possibly its intrinsic color but more likely due to very high redshift; only with an accurate spectrum could the researchers tell for sure.

Initial spectra were captured by the Hubble's Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS), equipped with a grism (a combined diffraction grating and prism) that collects light from the target object and from nearby objects as well.

"The ACS grism data suggested the most likely match was a Type Ia supernova at redshift 1.7 – very distant and very old – but by itself the ACS could not establish the spectral features which could confirm this," says SCP member Andrew Fruchter, of the Space Telescope Science Institute.

The problem was solved when a different grism-equipped camera, the Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC3), was installed on the Hubble in 2009. When David Rubin saw the data he realized that the WFC3 had luckily caught some of the spectrum of Mingus's host galaxy.

Fruchter says, "The new WFC3 data pinned down the host's redshift at 1.713 – a match to the first estimate for Mingus." He adds that "each new instrument on HST has enabled new discoveries. It's exciting to see the Hubble continue to make breakthroughs even as we are building its successor."

To confirm that far-away Mingus really was a Type Ia, Rubin derived a spectrum model that allowed him to compare its spectrum with published spectra from other Type Ia's, as well as from core-collapse supernovae, as these objects would appear at redshift 1.713. The best-fit Type Ia spectrum was an almost perfect match with Mingus's spectrum. With Rubin's model indicating an over 90-percent chance of its identity – a conservative estimate, at that – Mingus was confirmed as a Type Ia and with confirmation got its more official-sounding designation, SCP-0401.

"To be able to directly compare different Type Ia supernovae, we have to fit their light curves – the time it takes the supernova to reach maximum brightness and the time it takes that brightness to fall off," says Rubin. "We also have to be able to compare the brightness of the different colors during this process, in order to calibrate the supernova."

Perlmutter remarks that such calibration "can be a lot like trying to match a particular shade of housepaint when you've got a thousand color chips to compare, maybe more." In this case, calibration meant finding exactly the right shade of red. Both the ACS camera and the Near Infrared Camera and Multi-Object Spectrometer (NICMOS), also carried aboard the Hubble, measured SCP-0401's apparent brightness in different colors over time.

The cosmological picture from SCP-0401, a single distant data point, begins to sharpen our measurements of dark energy's possible time variation. This is the first step toward the precision measurements that will require observations of many more Type Ia supernovae as far away as SCP-0401.

Says Rubin, "Hubble is our best bet to find and measure similar distant supernovae. Luckily Hubble has a few good years left."

Explore further: Hubble breaks new ground with discovery of distant exploding star

More information: "Precision measurement of the most distant spectroscopically confirmed supernova Ia with the Hubble Space Telescope," by David Rubin et al., will appear in the January 20, 2013 issue of the Astrophysical Journal and is currently available as a preprint on arXiv at

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1.5 / 5 (8) Jan 09, 2013
Fascinating! The further out we look, the more there is to see. And there are still people who discount the idea that the universe is infinite. And I still think our calculations of distance and size are distorted by the refusal to give credit to the tired-light theory, simply because it can't be proven in a laboratory (as told to me by Isaac Asimov when I wrote him about it). That is the theory that, past a certain threshold, all light displays red shift, simply from the distance it has to travel, regardless the object is coming toward us or going away. I think we could simulate the effect in a super computer. But, nobody in the business is willing to admit they might be wrong, and have to reformulate their theories to match observable facts.
1 / 5 (6) Jan 09, 2013 would think that it would have matched his inven...derived model way closer than 90%
1 / 5 (8) Jan 10, 2013
It was probably just a blown pixel
1.3 / 5 (12) Jan 10, 2013
† We did not 'evolve', we were created. Your thesis delves upon the second heaven. No one has seen the third heaven; your knowledge is limited, therefore your thesis is flawed.
4.5 / 5 (8) Jan 10, 2013
@Argiod: The inflationary standard cosmology is the first self-consistent cosmology, and the December WMAP 9 year release has decreased the uncertainty to < 1.5 % on parameters. It is highly unlikely a self-consistent theory and its observations will be replaced.

So "tired-light" or other theories can't compete today. IIRC it was rejected by inconsistency with observations all by its own way before that.

@synoptic: I just detailed 5 reasons why we know our universe is zero energy here: . A zero energy system can, as I noted there, either come from a spontaneous fluctuation or always existed. In none of those cases there can be an outside agent, or it wouldn't be zero energy.

We now know there are no "creator" gods, no "creations", because it is observably written all over the sky in the cosmic microwave background: "this universe, and all its contents, is 100 % naturally evolved".
1 / 5 (9) Jan 10, 2013
Not that we wish to discuss 'worldly' science, but what of "your big bang theory"? Did this theory come about "magically", or was a Creator involved, by creating a supernatural event? You have eeyes but you see not.
1.6 / 5 (13) Jan 10, 2013
† Revelation 4:11

11 You are worthy, our King and our Elohim, to receive glory and honor and the power: for you did create all things, and because of your will they were, and were created.
1.7 / 5 (10) Jan 10, 2013
☭ Frank 6:66

66 Moderators: Ban synoptic. Thank you.
1 / 5 (8) Jan 10, 2013
Thank you Argiod for your fine Jan. 9 statement. The Big Bang is a creationist model for the sophisticated modern man. There are ample good arguments against it. Google "bigbangcosmythology" for the website "Big Bang Cosmology is Absurd."
not rated yet Jan 12, 2013
not rated yet Jan 12, 2013
The inflationary standard cosmology is the first self-consistent cosmology, and the December WMAP 9 year release has decreased the uncertainty to < 1.5 % on parameters. It is highly unlikely a self-consistent theory and its observations will be replaced.

I'm confused. The first self-consistent cosmology or a highly unlikely self-consistent theory?

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