The most distant explosion ever detected -- a gamma ray burst -- occurred deep in the constellation Pisces.

Big Isle scopes
plot star dying at far
edge of known universe

Astronomers from Japan and the University of Hawaii have used telescopes to measure a massive star in the throes of dying about 12.8 billion light-years away -- the most distant explosion of a star seen from Earth.

The gamma ray burst came from the explosion of the star at the dawn of the universe. Detection of the gamma-ray bursts was made Sept. 4 through NASA's Swift satellite before being pinpointed by telescopes in Chile.

The Swift satellite, equipped with a first-of-its-kind multiwavelength observatory and launched last November, detects gamma ray bursts and notifies scientists about their location.

"It's difficult to detect objects at this distance because they're very, very faint," said Lennox Cowie, an astronomer with the University of Hawaii's Institute for Astronomy.

"This is a very exciting gamma ray burst. It's quite dramatic."

Cowie, interviewed yesterday, said through studying the gamma ray bursts, scientists will be able to increase their understanding about the star formation of the universe and the formation of Earth's sun.

He said examining the formation of stars will help scientists also understand how various elements including carbon originated.

"This is a very fundamental aspect of the origin of everything, including us," he said.

Cowie said astronomers were able to analyze the spectrum of colors emitted from the gamma ray bursts to determine the distance of the dying star from Earth.

The astronomy team that measured the precise distance of the dying sun was led by Nobuyuki Kawai, astronomer with the Tokyo Institute of Technology, using the 8.2-meter Subaru telescope on Mauna Kea.

The Subaru telescope is Japan's largest optical-infrared telescope and operated by the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan.

There are fewer than 50 other known objects -- all galaxies -- at such great distances from Earth, and most of them are too faint for all but the largest of telescopes.

The remnants of the gamma ray explosions sometimes fade away in a matter of days.

Other astronomers collected information through telescopes worldwide, including NASA's Infrared Telescope Facility on Mauna Kea and the Magnum telescope on Haleakala.

Paul Price, another astronomer with the Institute for Astronomy, said as scientists look farther away, they are looking further back in time.

Price said with the latest technology scientists are likely to see a star even farther away.

Price said these bursts occur usually among some massive stars that are 10 to 30 times and perhaps even 50 times the size of the sun.

The discovery comes less than a decade after scientists first learned that the gamma ray explosions were coming from beyond our own galaxy.

Scientists began only about three years ago to piece together the causes of these tremendous explosions.

"Because these explosions are so bright, they give us the opportunity to study stellar birth and death in the most distant universe in a manner we could only dream about a couple of years ago," Price said.

Subaru Telescope

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