Blast from the Past:
Farthest Supernova Ever Seen
Sheds Light on Dark Universe

Using NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers pinpointed a blaze of light from the farthest supernova ever seen, a dying star that exploded 10 billion years ago.

The detection and analysis of this supernova, called 1997ff, is greatly bolstering the case for the existence of a mysterious form of dark energy pervading the cosmos, making galaxies hurl ever faster away from each other. The supernova also offers the first glimpse of the universe slowing down soon after the Big Bang, before it began speeding up.

This panel of images, taken with the Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2, shows the supernova's cosmic neighborhood; its home galaxy; and the dying star itself.

Astronomers found this supernova in 1997 during a second look at the northern Hubble Deep Field [top panel], a tiny region of sky first explored by the Hubble telescope in 1995. The image shows the myriad of galaxies Hubble spied when it peered across more than 10 billion years of time and space. The white box marks the area where the supernova dwells.

The photo at bottom left is a close-up view of that region. The white arrow points to the exploding star's home galaxy, a faint elliptical. Its redness is due to the billions of old stars residing there.

The picture at bottom right shows the supernova itself, distinguished by the white dot in the center. Although this stellar explosion is among the brightest beacons in the universe, it could not be seen directly in the Hubble images. The stellar blast is so distant from Earth that its light is buried in the glow of its host galaxy.

To find the supernova, astronomers compared two pictures of the "deep field" taken two years apart. One image was of the original Hubble Deep Field; the other, the follow-up deep-field picture taken in 1997. Using special computer software, astronomers then measured the light from the galaxies in both images. Noting any changes in light output between the two pictures, the computer identified a blob of light in the 1997 picture that wasn't in the original deep-field study of 1995. That blob turned out to be the supernova. The red background texture is an artifact of the process of isolating the supernova.

Credits: NASA, Adam Riess (Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore, MD)

This graph plots the size of the universe over time as measured by Hubble Telescope observations of exploding stars, called supernovas, at various distances from Earth.
Hubble's study of exploding stars several billion light-years from Earth set the stage for observations of more distant supernovas.

This diagram shows the ingredients that make up the universe. Astronomers now realize that the universe's main ingredient is "dark energy", a misterious form of energy that exists between galaxies. The next largest constituent is dark matter, which is an unknown form of matter. The rest of the universe consists of ordinary matter. Most of it is locked up in stars and clouds of gas. A tiny fraction of this matter is composed of heavier elements, the stuff of which humans and planets are made.

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Blast from the Past: Farthest Supernova Ever Seen Sheds Light on Dark Universe

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Blast from the Past: Farthest Supernova Ever Seen Sheds Light on Dark Universe
(at the Web site of the STScI).

Updated: April 4 '01

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