The Hubble Space Telescope, in operation since 1990, has recently captured four images. Together, they show a first for astronomy: a picture of an exploding star. While Hubble was not specifically looking for this object, the keen eye of Dr. Patrick Kelly, from the University of California, discovered the images while scouring for other astronomic explosions.
It was a bit of physics trickery that allowed the Hubble Space Telescope to grab these images in the first place. The star in question is positioned behind a cluster of massive galaxies. These, in turn, had such a great gravitational effect that light and time were warped around them, acting as a kind of celestial magnifying glass.
What is particularly impressive is that the star did not explode recently. Astronomers at the Australian National University (ANU) believe the event is some 9 billion years old – the image is of a much earlier universe than the one we are experiencing today.
Brad Tucker of the ANU thinks the images will help scientists delve into the inner workings of our universe at an earlier age. Current estimates put the distance of the star at 9.3 billion light-years from Earth.
“It’s a relic of a simpler time, when the universe was still slowing down and dark energy was not doing crazy stuff,” Tucker said. “We can use that to work out how dark matter and dark energy have messed up the universe.”
It doesn’t stop there however. The researchers also believe that there were missed opportunities to witness the supernova both ten and fifty years ago. Fortunately, they are in luck, as the images are expected to return every five years or so.
This means that the team will be able to calculate the distances the universe has been expanding over the course of time, using the images of the exploding star as a kind of time map.
“It means we can wait for these appearances to replay over time and measure directly how much space has grown in that intervening time,” Tucker said. “The other exciting aspect of this discovery is that while we know the universe is accelerating, it hasn’t always been. It slowed down before it sped up.”
If you wish to learn more, you can check out the full paper, published in the journal Science, today. The full paper was co-authored by both Kelly and Tucker.