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Texas Telescope Captures Light from Massive Star Explosion 12 Billion Years Ago

First Posted: Jun 04, 2014 12:22 PM EDT

Intense light from a massive star explosion that occurred more than 12 billion years ago has been captured by a Texas telescope. The light could reveal new information about our early universe.

The light from these star explosions are known as a gamma-ray burst. These bursts are believed to be the result of a catastrophic collapse of a star at the end of its lifetime.  Gamma-ray bursts themselves are still not well understood by astronomers, which is why scientists take every opportunity to observe and record them.

"As NASA points out, gamma-ray bursts are the most powerful explosions in the universe since the Big Bang," said Farley Ferrante, one of the researchers, in a news release. "These bursts release more energy in 10 seconds than our Earth's sun during its entire expected lifespan of 10 billion years."

This latest gamma-ray burst is called GRB 140419A. This burst was most likely caused when a hot star ran out of fuel and collapsed in on itself, forming a black hole. The outer layers detonated and then shot material along the rotation axis in powerful, high-energy jets that included gamma radiation. The explosion itself produced an afterglow of visible optical light, which faded very quickly.

"The optical light is visible for anywhere from a few seconds to a few hours," said Robert Kehoe, one of the researchers, in a news release. "Sometimes optical telescopes can capture the spectra. This allows us to calculate the redshift of the light, which tells us how fast the light is moving away from us. This is an indirect indication of the distance from us."

By calculating the redshift, the researchers managed to tell that GRB 140419A exploded about 12.1 billion years ago. That's only 1.5 billion years after the universe began.

"At the time of this gamma-ray burst's explosion, the universe looked vastly differently than it does now," said Kehoe in a news release. "It was an early stage of galaxy formation. There weren't heavy elements to make Earth-like planets. So this is a glimpse at the early universe. Observing gamma-ray bursts is important for gaining information about the early universe."

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