Astronomy Professor Helps Discover Farthest Known Object in Universe

Profs. discover gamma-ray burst born from star’s death, black hole

A group of scientists—including one Harvard professor—have discovered the furthest known object in the universe, Gamma-Ray Burst 090423, after it was detection by NASA’s Swift telescope last Thursday morning.

The object is 13.1 billion light years away and is thought to have been caused by the death of a massive star and the birth of a black hole, according to Edo Berger, an assistant professor of astronomy.

“It is further than any other known object,” he said.

The group of scientists that discovered the distance of this object include Berger, of the Harvard Center for Astrophysics, Derek A. Fox from Penn State University, and Nino Cucchiara, one of Fox’s students. This distance has since been confirmed by scientists from around the world.

Research into gamma-ray bursts fosters the understanding of the early universe according to Astronomy Professor Johnathan E. Grindlay.

“They are a brief period of illumination looking back in time,” he said

This particular gamma-ray burst’s redshift of 8.2 corresponds to such a large distance that it indicates the presence of stars a mere 630 million years after the Big Bang—when the universe was just 5 percent of its current age.

“We are still trying to figure out all the implications ourselves,” Fox said.

This area of research has potential huge implications for the discovery exactly when the first stars formed in the universe.

“We are very excited about it,” Grindlay said. “We didn’t doubt gamma-ray bursts could be at such an early time in the universe, but this confirms it.”

Various groups are proposing NASA missions that would further investigate such phenomena, including Harvard’s Energetic X-ray Imaging Survey Telescope (EXIST) and Penn State’s Joint Astrophysics and Nascent Universe Satellite (JANUS).

The autonomous space-based telescope Swift, which detected the gamma-ray burst, was launched in 2004 in order to help scientists further the understand of these objects.