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Friday, December 18, 1998 Published at 18:41 GMT


Explosion on the edge of space

Keck I and Keck II on the summit of Mauna Kea

By BBC News Online Science Editor Dr David Whitehouse

A team of astronomers from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California have announced the discovery of a supernova that exploded almost 10 billion years ago, the oldest supernova and most distant ever found.

When it exploded the universe was a younger and far different place from what it is today.

A supernova is one of nature's grandest and most awesome spectacles. For a few days, an exploding star can outshine an entire galaxy of its companions - a hundred thousand million of them - and be seen across the universe.

To infinity

By studying distant supernova, astronomers can determine the scale of space and whether the universe will expand forever or stop expanding and go into reverse.

[ image: Hunting down the supernovae]
Hunting down the supernovae
Nicknamed Albinoni by its discoverers, this latest supernova is estimated to be some 18 billion light-years away.

Curiously the Supernova is actually calculated to be 10 billion years old. The discrepancy between its age and its distance is due to the stretching of space by the expansion of the universe, and can be used to determine that the universe is speeding up.

Hawaiian telescope

Supernova Albinoni was found deep in the constellation of Pegasus on the night of 15 October, 1998, at the 10-metre Keck II Telescope on Mauna Kea, Hawaii.

"For our study of the expansion of the universe, we depend upon a special kind of supernova called type Ia," said astronomer Saul Perlmutter. "These are not only very bright, and thus visible at great distances, they also provide a precise standard of brightness wherever they occur. So we can use their apparent brightness to tell us how far away they are."

After comparing values for many type Ia supernovae in nearby galaxies with those in more distant galaxies, the team announced in January of 1998 that the expansion of the universe is accelerating.

This discovery was named by Science magazine as the "Breakthrough of the Year."

Interesting names

Supernova Albinoni is the most distant point yet on the graph for measuring the size of space. Its distance indicates that the universe is now at least 2.2 times bigger than when Albinoni exploded.

Although supernovae are not formally named after famous people, the project found so many in 1998 that it became hard to distinguish among them on the basis of letter-number designations.

So the astronomers started assigning nicknames like Bartok, Brahms, Elgar, Wagner, and even John Cage. The correct designation for supernova Albinoni, named after the 17th and 18th-century Venetian composer Tomaso Albinoni is SN1998eq. Boring.

The research work has been done in collaboration with the Cambridge Institute of Astronomy, UK.

Pictures courtesy of the W.M. Keck Observatory

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