Scientists Detect 12-Billion-Year-Old Supernova, the Oldest Yet Observed

By Ashley P. Taylor | November 6, 2012 3:18 pm

Kepler supernovaThe most recently observed stellar explosion in our neighborhood
was Kepler’s supernova, spotted 400 years ago.

Scientists using a telescope atop a Hawaiian volcano have detected a pair of extra-bright supernovae, or star explosions, one of which is the oldest, most-distant supernova ever detected.

That explosion occurred 12 billion years ago, making it a billion years older than the oldest supernova ever seen before. Because they are so bright—about 10 to 100 times brighter than most supernovae—these superluminous supernovae extend the limit on how far scientists can look back in time when they study the stars, whose light takes so long to reach us that what they are showing us is a picture of the universe in the past. With these results, published in Nature, scientists are peering closer than ever before to the time of the Big Bang, 13.7 billion years ago.

Scientists determined the ages of these exploded stars by looking at the wavelengths of light emanating from them: the longer the wavelengths, the older the light. Since the universe is expanding, we are moving farther and farther away from everything in it, including these ancient explosions. As a source of light, the explosion, and we, the observers, move farther apart, the wavelengths of light between us become longer and longer—closer to the red end of the spectrum, a phenomenon called redshift. The more the light has shifted to the red wavelengths, the farther away the source is and the older it is. One of the newly observed supernovae had a redshift value of 2.05, indicating that it exploded 10.4 billion years ago. The 12-billion-year-old supernova had a redshift of 3.9.

The authors of the Nature paper write that they don’t think these supernovae were the first stars to form after the Big Bang, but the discovery of these old explosions raises hopes that they might be able to detect similar explosions from those original stars in the future. The researchers know what they are looking for: they expect the stars formed right after the Big Bang to appear in areas low in heavy elements. Seeing the explosion of a star formed soon after the Big Bang would just be stellar.

Supernova image via NASA, ESA, R. Sanskrit and W. Blair (Johns Hopkins University)

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Physics & Math, Space
  • Michael Martin

    So, objects (supernovae) farther out, so super far out, to the undetectable fartherest reaches of the universe, are a Gabajillion years old?!?!!!?

  • Greg for President

    What will scientist do when they find a supernova from 15 billion years ago?

  • Louis Ventre

    Greg, I don’t think we could see that because if the universe is 13.7 billion years old, the farthest we can see is 13.7 billion light years. While there might be objects further out due to inflation, we will not be able to see them.

  • Rick

    I think the Big Bang theory is b.s.

  • John Heininger

    It seems that the further we look back in time, the more things look essentially the same. As stated by astrophysicists Abraham Loeb and Jonathan Pritchard, “When our telescopes pick up the universe story again, it is already recognizably its adult self.” Which seems to affirm, as Astrophysicist Paul Davies notes, that the minimum entropy state of maximum order, information, and usable energy was there at the beginning. Along with cosmic unity, symmetry, and precisely balanced particles and constants. Meaning, the universe started out essentially tailor made.

  • Len Gensburg

    Wow, that’s a stretch. Isn’t it possible that some changes took place in those 1.7 billion years before this supernova? It is, after all, a long time.

  • Bonjour

    Answer to Greg for President (comment 2) : The universe hasn’t been around for that long. It’s been around for about 14 billion years, actually.

  • Bob S

    My email alert from Discovery that described this article stated

    “Using a telescope atop a Hawaiian volcano, astronomers have detected a pair of extra-bright supernovae, one of which is only about 1.7 billion years younger than the Big Bang.”

    May I assume the phrase should have been 1.7 billion year OLDER than the Big Bang? Otherwise, this is VERRRRRY interesting.

  • Frank S

    Bob S it can’t be older than the Big Bang. But more appropriate phrasing would have been “1.7 billion years Younger than the Universe”. Remember, the Universe and, Time itself, starts with the BB. FYI the best estimate is that the BB occurred 13.7 billion years ago, hence something that occurred 12 billion years ago is 13.7 – 12.0 = 1.7 billion less, i.e., younger. If you have a sibling born after you isn’t that sibling younger than you are? For readers of Discover I can’t believe the level of ignorance exhibited in the comments so far. G for P if a redshift indicates a distance of 15 billion light years then all of cosmological theory will have to change. The age of the universe is calculated based upon a theoretical average rate of expansion, use that, run it backwards in time (contraction), and everything starts as an infinitesimal point (singularity) +/- 13.7 billion years ago. The ability of redshift to calculate distance due to expansion of the universe is well established.

  • Lil’ Dickie

    My assumption is that Greg’s point is that if it were determined that the supernova is actually greater than 13.7 billion years old, it would turn the scientific community upside down, and we would have to re-evaluate everything that we think we know about the origins of the universe.

  • Chris the Canadian

    For those poo poohing greg’s question, it is a valid one. How can you as scientists not be open to the possibility that, if by using current and modern methods of determining a star event’s age, an object may potentially be detected in the sky that it is deemed OLDER than the estimated date of the BB???

    “Oh nooooo, the BB happened approximately 14 billion years ago so there is no way an event could be detected that was older than that”.

    “Oh Nooo, the earth is the center of the Universe and it orbits around us. We don’t orbit around the Sun”

    “Oh Noooooo ith, the Lord created thy Earth in 6 days and on the 7th day he rested.”

    Science should be an openminded and open ended quest for truth and knowledge. We do not know the BB happened 14 billion years ago, we can only estimate. Here is another possibility. If the BB happened at a central point, wouldn’t the explosion expand out all radiuses? therefore couldn’t it be possible that there are particles, galaxies, stars and objects hurtling the opposite direction to us and therefore if you peer back towards them, it looks as though they are further back in ‘time’ because they have expanded away from the central point of the BB at the same speed and distance as we have? Wouldn’t that skew the numbers?

  • Richard A

    Chris – your observation that the BB occurred at a set point in “space” and then expanded outward in a radial pattern in “space” is false. At the singularity that represents the BB, all space and time was “within” the singularity itself, there was no concept of space outside the singularity. All dimensions, including the four we most associate with, were “curled” up inside the singularity…for whatever reasons, only the four we are familiar with “uncurled” and the others remain “curled” up. Again, another topic which Richard Green as eloquently addressed in his book, The Elegant Universe.
    Trying to visualize space-time in our 4 space universe is a normal problem that many have in trying to picture space-time within those limitations or bounds.
    I may refer you to one of the standard explanations of the expansion of the universe as the expanding surface of an inflating balloon example. Everything is moving away from everything…space-time is the surface of the balloon in this example, not the interior (again a concept of 4 space limitations of our normal thinking).
    I also accept that the singularity had a minimum entropy and maximum order and that entropy is increasing in accordance with the 2nd law of thermodynamics. Many, myself included, also accept the concept of the initial expansion of the universe was not linear and was exponential in nature (ie. the time from the BB to approx 10-37 seconds, but that is also another discussion).
    A year or so ago, I read a good book by Roger Penrose on the nature of his concept of the Conformed Cyclic Cosmology (CCC) which not only explains a lot of the concepts and theories on the BB and early universe (and where we might be going in the far future) but also proposes a novel concept that the cosmos might might be cyclic in nature and fit within a conformed model (ie. simply stated a smooth connection at the singularity) and in agreement with the 2nd law of thermodynamics…a great read if you want to try it.

  • Iain’s Opinion

    @ Chris and others.
    The big bang wasn’t an explosion, it was the start of the expansion. Everything is moving away from everything else (more or less). It doesn’t matter which way we point our telescopes we can see light from about 13.4 ish billion years ago and everything looks very much the same no matter where we look. However that is not to say that that is the entire universe, it is all of the universe we can see. We can assume there is more if we were to find anomalous behaviour of outermost galaxies caused by a large mass outside of our observational envelope.

  • Jay Warner

    The red shift is due to the _rate_ that solar bodies move away from us, not the _distance_. It just happens (!) that for the universe we understand, the rate of motion (moving apart) is proportional to the distance separating the two objects. Therefore, the piece would make more sense to me if it discussed rates of motion of these distant objects, instead of the distance between them. I _think_ the article does not explicitly link the distance apart and the rate of separation.

  • Richard A

    The correct citation for “The Elegant Universe” in my Comment No. 12 is Micheal Greene, not Richard Green….who the heck knows why I had a brain fart….the entropy of my brain is increasing as I age.
    Moderator, please correct my comment No. 12, or let this correction stand.

  • riano

    the real how old our universe, what the influence with distance light years? when we research forward maybe we can find another supernova. we are in a big hole.

  • Craig Kinard

    The bedrock of the Big Bang is clearly the “certainty” that the Doppler red shift theory is correct regarding the relative motions of celestial bodies. All objects can be thought of as existing on the skin of an ever-expanding balloon, but are objects receding from each other at a constant speed, as one would expect if the Big Bang were the only driving force for the expansion? I believe I’ve read that objects are receding at varying speeds; if this is so, don’t we have to assume a mysterious “anti-gravity” force at work on a universal scale? And if such a force exists across the universe, shouldn’t we be able to detect it? Just a few thoughts . . .

  • Eugene Sittampalam

    Scientists detecting supernovae older than the so-called big- bang, or roughly 14 billion years, is hereby predicted to be an absolute certainty, based simply on the fact that with the ever-improving observations and observational techniques, make these but foregone conclusions in astrophysics. Fundamentally. it is our interpretation of the redshifts observed in light from stars that is found highly wanting, to say the least.
    Dear friends, to start with here – the Hubble expansion of space is a misconception(1, 2).
    It is a gross miscarriage of interpretative science that has unnecessarily taken us into a fantasy world of singularities with so-called Big Bangs and Big Crunches. However, in the light of the ultimate concept now of the photon (2), the misgivings of the cosmological redshift find a simple and final resolution.

    Consider the case of a packet of photons reaching us from, say, a distant supernova explosion as the one reported here. Clearly, the packet has survived the long haul through the field of the cosmic background radiation (CBR); a journey of meandering around stars, star clusters, galaxies, galaxy clusters, and galaxy superclusters. But for us to say that the package is here in its pristine form after billions of years of such travel is downright presumptuous especially for serious scientists, to say the least. (Any Doppler shift of the energy is excepted.)

    Photons of the stream pack momentum and they move at speed c. Through the long intergalactic space, however, they are pushed from post to pillar by the asymmetry of the regional fields along the way, that is, even in the generally non-material medium of intergalactic space.

    Thus, the stream of momentum particles moving at constant speed c along its trajectory
    is forced to change its state of straight-line motion.

    This entails transverse acceleration – and transverse momentum change. And the momentum change by every such lateral “squeeze” in one direction causes the vibrant stream to counter that effect by ejecting part of its energy laterally in the opposite direction – and out of the mainstream.

    This is, in principle, the same as synchrotron radiation recognized today in particles of matter undergoing deviation from straight-line paths at high speeds.

    Thus, the very much deviated and squeezed-out stream of cosmic photons entering solar space arrives ‘tired,’ or lower in energy content per photon (1), compared to their local counterparts; and every single wavelength in the extragalactic energy stream extends and appears redshifted to detectors in solar space.
    That is, even light from a relatively approaching body, but beyond a certain cosmic distance from us, will have its Doppler blueshift overwhelmed by this redshift effect. (Any recessional motion of source, of course, would show up as increased redshift.)

    Thank you all for your time here.

  • David Milne

    @Chris the Canadian. By simply posing the question “How can you scientists not be open to the possibility….” you are incorrectly inferring that science and scientists do not have an open-minded approach to the results of their investigations. Our CURRENT knowledge suggests a 13.7 billion year old universe, but if our knowledge improves or changes, scientists will also change that figure. It’s that simple.

  • Day

    Hubble (and every astronomer since) assumed/guessed that the observed red shift of starlight was due to motion away from us. Light traveling through space is not analogous to sound waves moving through an atmosphere, though, that is the basis for the assumption. For many reasons I doubt the guess is correct, but no astronomer who wants to keep his position will question the assumption, so weird articles like this will continue to be written.

  • Alex HM

    Frank S : Yes – amazing how dumb these guys are. My guess is the idiots have got time on their hands now there’s no point trolling the Internet with stories about how Obama is a Muslim, a socialist etc. etc.

    For you idiots… The reason why it is not expected that we would find a supernova older than 13.7Bn years old is not because of scientific dogma. The reason is because every piece of evidence found so far has shown convergence on that date. Science is not close minded, it justs builds confidence based on weight of evidence. People who are ignorant of that evidence see over-confidence, but if you honestly dig deeper, with an open mind, 99% of the time you will find that you, too, will be convinced. In the remaining 1% of the time you should question yourself, honestly; Am I aware of something that the rest of the scientific community is not and am I sufficiently expert to interpret that information correctly?

    Then google Dunning Kruger; Then ask yourself the question again. Then and only then should you start thinking you know better…. It has happened. Darwin on Evolution overturned the consensus and Wegener on Plate Tectonics, but they met the first criterion. They had spent their whole life steeped in the subject at more detail than anyone else. They had a reason to believe they knew better. What about you, Chris the Canadian? Or are you just an Internet crank with time on your hands and a bad case of Dunning Kruger?

  • JazzyJ

    Its seems like every site I visit and literally every comments area I read there are always more naysayers than people who deal with things in a logical form of thinking and process to go with ideas that are outside these individuals normal scope of whats possible and condemn everyones thoughts or creative energy outright or are summarily dispatched with extreme disbelief and a complete conviction of doubt.I am pretty sure we seriously dont have any fn clue and think we are all, literally every single one of us, looking for some answers to the minds rambling questions about how we came to be and the even bigger questions of why are we here and has this happened before as part of a larger circle of life, that is quite possibly displaying its pattern in cycles of multi-billion year increments of repeated expansion and contraction “Big Bang” events for millions upon million of these cyclic “multi-billion years” turns of being born in large universe altering explosions and devoured as the vortex collapses again into another singularity event and starts the process again and again over and over forever. The biggest question that ever came to my mind was what existed that we exploded into as the”phyical universe” we call our own…its almost impossible to conceive or even entertain the idea of “nothingness” because our minds trap is to say that even “nothing” is still “something”and that we are forced into this conscious resolution because we are bound by the ties of the physical properties of tangible objects all the way to the smallest atoms and even smaller to the binding energy of those atoms which are still very much based in physical representations of existence.

    Who am I to say the universe is or it isnt 13.7 billion years old and I truly believe there is an answer to be had but I swear even if it was right in my face I would probably have some doubt and keep searching blowing right past it to find the “real” answer because in all seriousness my mind would probably trick me into believing the real answer was still “out there” waiting to be discovered. Anyone of us humans that thinks they know it all is absolutely full of s**t, lying to themselves and others to find solice and is 100% just as confused and scared of the uncertainty that death inevitably brings us…. just like the rest of us! If there ever is a day that we know for absolute certain where we came from and why ….would it really make the questions of life and death ….disappear? Or would it just make a transition to even more questions that need to be answered?In other words why dont you try living while your alive and remain open to new concepts and theories because I know of only one thing that is truly constant in this universe: “Nothing is constant but change”… now shut up and start living the complete gift/curse that life truly is and explore its intricate facets to the fullest! Just saying!!!

    JazzyJ ….one dude with an opinion the same as the rest of us!

  • quadracat

    Greg — thank you for a genuine laugh. The rest of you … “lighten” up — reread Greg’s comment with your funny bone first, not your skull! PS – you’d make a great president !

  • Richard A

    Eugene Sittampalam, Interesting read, but I do not agree totally with the “tired photon” idea. However, I believe what you describe in the evolution of a photon’s path through deep space and time would in essence be the same as the sum of Weyl Curvature over the path, would you agree? Certainly I agree with your observation that such a path could be incredibly tortuous and filled with error by the time we observe it. As such, some distant light sources (galaxies) may not actually be oriented where we see them…and also keeping in mind that they have obviously changed relative location over the eons.

    This seems it could also apply to CMB radiation too.

    Several corrections to my first post, due to my brain entropy increasing, the time of exponential expansion should be given as an estimate of 10-32 seconds and approximates the time of decoupling in the early universe. Also, when I dug up my old copy, the book referred to was written by Brian Greene, professor of theoretical physics at Columbia University, where he works with String Theory and the representation of additional dimensions through related Calabi-Yau manifolds…my bad.

  • Eugene Sittampalam

    Thanks, Richard A, for your feedback (comment no. 22) above. I have based my argument simply on action-and-reaction and cause-and-effect. In a curvilinear path of the photon moving with a line speed of c, there is always a transverse acceleration at each curve it negotiates; as a consequence, we have to figure out what causes this transverse acceleration in order to keep that forward line speed always constant at c, without resorting to saying, “But nobody knows why it is true,” as Richard Feynman’s father says on the phenomenon of inertia in the following clip:
    As a child, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman asked his father why a ball in his toy wagon moved backward whenever he pulled the wagon forward. His father said that the answer lay in the tendency of moving things to keep moving, and of stationary things to stay put. “This tendency is called inertia,” said Feynman senior. Then, with uncommon wisdom, he added: “But nobody knows why it is true.”
    That’s more than even most physicists would say. To them, inertia does not need explaining, it simply “is.” But since the concept was first coined by Galileo in the 17th century, some scientists have wondered if, perhaps, inertia is not intrinsic to matter at all, but is somehow acquired. Those who have tried to come to grips with inertia include Feynman junior, once he had grown up, and Albert Einstein, who tried – and failed – to show that inertia was related to the arrangement of matter in the universe.
    In 1872, [the German philosopher-physicist Ernst] Mach argued that acceleration – and hence inertia – is not absolute, but only has meaning within a frame of reference. For Mach, that frame of reference consisted of the other matter in the universe: After all, in utterly empty space, how do you know you are moving? Einstein later tried and failed to work that notion into general relativity..
    Inertia: Does Empty Space Put Up the Resistance? Robert Matthews, RESEARCH NEWS, Science 263, 612 (4 Feb 1994)

    Kindly refer again to the web pages given in my first comment as well as to the following, which illustrates also the mechanism underlying the supernova:
    Thanks again and Cheers!


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