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Astronomers Spot Most Distant Supernova Yet

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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most distant supernova, SLSNe

Simulation of an early galaxy hosting a superluminous supernova. Credit: Adrian Malec and Marie Martig (Swinburne University)

A superluminous supernova may sound like a designation dreamed up by someone with a penchant for hyperbole, but such explosions are deserving of the extravagant language. They are very big blasts—and two newfound examples originated in the very distant past.

Astronomers using two telescopes atop Mauna Kea in Hawaii have discovered a pair of supernovae that occurred more than 10 billion years ago, when the universe was less than a quarter of its present age. The older, and hence more remote, of the two supernovae ranks as the most distant such event known.

The researchers were able to spot the ancient stellar explosions, whose light has only just reached Earth, because of the extreme luminosity of the supernovae—the newly discovered blasts may signal the cataclysmic death of giant stars more than 100 times as massive as the sun. Although such superluminous explosions have been detected in the relatively nearby universe, they ought to be more common in the early universe, when massive stars were more numerous.

Jeff Cooke of the Swinburne University of Technology in Australia and his colleagues reported the discoveries in a study published online October 31 in Nature. (Scientific American is part of Nature Publishing Group.) The supernovae pair, which have been designated SN 2213-1745 and SN 1000+0216, were identified from deep-sky images taken at the 3.6-meter Canada—France-–Hawaii Telescope between 2003 and 2008. The researchers then used the 10-meter Keck I telescope to make spectral measurements of the galaxies where the supernovae were discovered, which revealed precise distance measurements for both host galaxies.

Cosmologists and astrophysicists gauge cosmic distance using redshift, a measure of how much light has been stretched toward longer wavelengths as it propagates across an expanding universe. SN 2213-1745 lies at a redshift of 2.05, which implies that the supernova’s progenitor star exploded 10.4 billion years ago. (The universe is now about 13.7 billion years old.) The extreme brightness and slow fading of SN 2213-1745 match up well with the properties expected of a so-called pair-instability supernova, the death of a giant star brought on by energetic gamma rays giving off pairs of matter and antimatter particles. The star that exploded as SN 2213-1745 may have been as massive as 250 suns, the researchers estimate.

SN 1000+0216, which lies at a redshift of 3.9, went off some 12 billion years ago. The discovery smashes the record held by a supernova identified by Cooke and his colleagues in 2009 at redshift 2.36, which corresponds to a light-travel time of about 11 billion years. The new record holder may also be a kind of pair-production supernova, Cooke and his colleagues report, but the data on the distant cataclysm are too limited to determine the exact mechanism behind the luminous blast.

About the Author: John Matson is an associate editor at Scientific American focusing on space, physics and mathematics. Follow on Twitter @jmtsn.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. jtdwyer 10:23 pm 11/5/2012

    The term “Superluminous” does not mean ‘really bright’ – it means ‘faster than the speed of light’. Please see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Superluminous

    Link to this
  2. 2. Tak Poon 10:32 pm 11/5/2012

    very true. I think as an assoc editor of Scientific American, Mr. Matson has to be well aware of the precision required in scientific writing. The little hyphen between ‘super’ and ‘luminous’ in this article:
    http://phys.org/news/2011-04-keck-telescope-images-super-luminous-supernova.html
    carries a great deal of meaning and cannot be casually taken for granted.

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  3. 3. Ungolythe 1:44 am 11/6/2012

    Superluminous – adj. Having a very high luminosity.
    Superluminal – adj. Having a speed greater than light. Really, if you look hard enough you can find something to be critical of in any published article anywhere — and often be wrong.

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  4. 4. J Hanford 11:12 am 11/6/2012

    These two stellar events are known as hypernovae.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hypernova

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  5. 5. reising412 5:29 pm 11/6/2012

    “Although such superluminous explosions have been detected in the relatively nearby universe…” states the article. Are we to assume that the supernova is from a nearby universe or is it located in our universe?

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  6. 6. jtdwyer 9:36 pm 11/6/2012

    Ungolythe – Honestly, when I read the opening paragraph I was confused as to what was being said:
    “A superluminous supernova may sound like a designation dreamed up by someone with a penchant for hyperbole, but such explosions are deserving of the extravagant language.”

    I objected because of my confusion that resulted from this reading. In the context of physics, I think that superluminous would be most generally used to imply superluminosity to most readers. You didn’t refer to your definition source – I presume it was not a scientific dictionary?

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  7. 7. patrick 4:18 am 11/7/2012

    “The extreme brightness and slow fading of SN 2213-1745 match up well with the properties expected of a so-called pair-instability supernova, the death of a giant star brought on by energetic gamma rays giving off pairs of matter and antimatter particles”.

    The above paragraph,which defines, the specific word ‘Pair’of Celestial Bodies cascading inversely in a “Geometrodynamical kinematic Torque”,( GKT )at a time period ,when the the universe were at the early stages of the big bang, at speed’s greater than the speed of light, which is the Graviton speed used by ‘Angular Momentum Torque GKT trajectories in cylindrical-polar coordinates’

    Within a decade as Technology and instruments are developed and refined to greater accuracies, there will be new discoveries of million ‘s of pair’s superluminous supernova, in the early universe, when massive PAIRS OF CELESTIAL BODIES were more numerous.

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  8. 8. davidpla 6:00 pm 11/8/2012

    ” … and slow fading of SN 2213-1745 …”
    How do we know that SN 2213-1745 is slow fading? Sure, the event happened over 10 billion years ago, but we are looking back in time to an incident that occured then. I would have thought that we would only know if it was “slow fading” if we looked again in a hundred or a thousand years time.

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  9. 9. toby1 6:06 pm 11/8/2012

    If the supernova occurred over 10 billion years ago, and the universe was only 1/4 of it’s present age, does that indicate that the universe is over 40 billion years old instead of 14 (+/-) years old?

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  10. 10. vinodkumarsehgal 8:23 am 11/9/2012

    “The researchers were able to spot the ancient stellar explosions, whose light has only just reached Earth, because of the extreme luminosity of the supernovae”

    Whenever astronomers report the observation of any SN or stellar body, they mention that light has been detected in their telescope at earth just first time. How do astronomers assure that light from SN 2213-1745 has just reached earth? May be photons of light, pertaining to light emitted from the SN in the earliest stages of SN, had reached earth some thousand and million of years ago and photons detected in the telescope NOW pertain to light emitted from SN in the later stages. After all telescope of astronomers was not focused on this particular SN all through out the time in the past

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  11. 11. vinodkumarsehgal 8:53 am 11/9/2012

    To davidpla

    You have raised a very pertinent point regarding “fading” of light since photons received in the telescope NOW pertain to photons emitted by SN THEN more than 10 billion years ago. But intensity of light decrease as per Inverse Square Law as it spreads out in space. Therefore, light which was emitted THEN more than 10 billion years ago had higher intensity than when SAME light is being received in the telescope NOW after traversing thru space for more than 10 billion light years. Further, light emitted might have encountered a nos. of stellar bodies, gas/dust, radiations en-route its long journey running into billion of light years. Obviously, much of the intensity of light might have had been lost due to absorption, scattering etc

    If the assumption that light from SN and detected in telescope NOW has reached earth FIRST TIME, it will also imply that these are the light photons which were emitted by SN FIRST TIME in the earlier stages. Light detected in telescope on earth in future should have lesser intensity since it will pertain to photons emitted from SN in the later stages. Due to expansion of space between earth and SN, if this phenomenon is true, light will be required to traverse larger path, therefore, effect of Inverse Square Law in diminishing intensity shall be more pronounced. As such, light detected in future from same SN should “fade” more provided intermediate conditions of stellar bodies, gas/dust remains same. However, in the case of an expanding evolutionary universe, how intermediate stages of stellar bodies, gas/dust/ radiations shall remain same all through out the period of more than 10 billion years?

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  12. 12. Ungolythe 1:38 am 11/10/2012

    jtdwyer, One source was http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/superluminous and another was here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Superluminous. Definitely not science dictionaries but the ones that I did check did not contain the word.

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  13. 13. iWind 7:36 am 11/10/2012

    @jtdwyer, the word you’re thinking of is “superluminal.”

    Just because some anonymous guy at some point made a Wikipedia entry redirecting “superluminosity” to FTL or superluminal travel and communication, does not mean that anybody actually use the word as such, nor does the entry at any point mention the word “superluminous!”

    In science luminosity and luminous refer to light emission, not speed, adding “super” just puts it at the upper end of whatever range you’re considering. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Luminosity

    In short, you’re wrong, it does mean “really bright.” If you don’t believe me, see http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/superluminous – that’s an actual entry, not a redirect. The complementary word “subluminous” is used frequently, with exactly the meaning one would expect, less bright than normal. I have removed the faulty redirection from Wikipedia – it now redirects to luminosity, which is a bit silly, but at least not plain wrong.

    @several others, a supernova fades over weeks, months and years. If a distant supernova happened a thousand years ago, there is nothing to see now. It only takes a couple of months to see if it fades slower than normal.

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  14. 14. jtdwyer 11:23 am 11/11/2012

    Patrick – the term ‘pair’ in pair-instability supernovae refers to the production of matter-antimatter pairs in the core of a supermassive star results in core collapse.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pair-instability_supernova
    “A pair-instability supernova occurs when pair production, the production of free electrons and positrons in the collision between atomic nuclei and energetic gamma rays, reduces thermal pressure inside a supermassive star’s core. This pressure drop leads to a partial collapse, then greatly accelerated burning in a runaway thermonuclear explosion which blows the star completely apart without leaving a black hole remnant behind.”

    Where did you come up with all the stuff about “Geometrodynamical kinematic Torque” & stuff? Wow!

    Link to this
  15. 15. vinodkumarsehgal 1:58 am 11/12/2012

    Recently in August 2012, there was a good article on Superluminous Supernovas ( SLSN) at space.com http://www.alothome.com/en-in.

    The article mentions 3 types of SLSNs. Most well understood but not so frequent SLSNs are the one which are powered by radioactive nickel

    Link to this

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