Astronomers Spot Farthest Object In Universe

A gamma-ray burst from about 13 billion light years away has become the most distant object in the known universe. Edo Berger of the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics offers his insight about the gamma ray burst.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

At last a story about billions and trillions that has nothing to do with the economy. Last week, a NASA satellite picked up a mysterious burst of gamma-rays in deep space, and what a burst. Scientists believe that this event, which was captured in infrared images, is the most distant object ever observed, or it's the oldest event ever observed. It was 13 billion light years away.

Joining us to talk about the discovery is Edo Berger, assistant professor of astronomy at Harvard University.

Welcome to the program.

Mr. EDO BERGER (Assistant Professor of Astronomy, Harvard University): Thank you. It's a pleasure to be here.

SIEGEL: If 13 billion is the oldest, what was the record going into last week?

Mr. BERGER: Well, the record was an object that was about 200 million light years closer to us, so about 12.8 billion light years away. But this new one essentially leapfrogs this previous object, which was an entire galaxy, whereas this new object that we found is a single star.

SIEGEL: A single star. Well, tell me what the image looks like and what it represents.

Mr. BERGER: Well, the image shows us the explosion of a very massive star that occurred only 600 million years after the Big Bang. Essentially, what we see is the light echo from the star as it propagated through 95 percent of the history of the universe until it reached us here on earth.

SIEGEL: When you say only 600 billion years after the Big Bang, the bat of an eyelash in history of time?

Mr. BERGER: Yes. In astronomical terms, we look 95 percent back through the history of the universe almost all the way to the Big Bang itself.

SIEGEL: And how significant a discovery is it?

Mr. BERGER: Well, I think it's huge. You know, this is the most distant object that humanity has ever seen and I think it's particularly fitting this year, which is the 400th anniversary of Galileo's first use of the telescope.

SIEGEL: Mm-hmm.

Mr. BERGER: He looked at the moon, which is very nearby. And now, we're looking almost to the beginning of time.

SIEGEL: Why does a star explode? Why would it just burst like that?

Mr. BERGER: Well, the star, particularly massive stars like the one that gave rise to this event, burn up their fuel very quickly in a few million years. So these stars are kind of the rock stars of the astronomy world. They live fast, they die young. And when they die, they make a big splash.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BERGER: And in this particular case, they make a splash that can be seen across the entire universe.

SIEGEL: I'm trying to imagine this. Is it possible for something still older to reach us, or would it have already reached us? I'm trying to do the math in my head, I just can't.

Mr. BERGER: Well, in principle, it is still possible, and that is essentially the next step in our work(ph) is to break this record and find the next most distant object. And essentially, what we're trying to do is take step by step going back in time until the - trying essentially to find a first generation of stars and galaxies in the universe. That is our ultimate goal.

SIEGEL: The first progeny of the Big Bang is what you're looking for here.

Mr. BERGER: Yes. Yeah, we are essentially looking at the infant universe. You know, this is the equivalent of, you know, somebody in their 40s or 50s finding for the first time a picture of when they were two years old. You could imagine the kind of excitement and surprise and how much you can learn from something like that. So that's essentially what we're doing to the universe. We're looking at the infant universe and trying to understand how it came to be this magnificent place that we see around us today.

SIEGEL: And hoping that you can get a glimpse of what it looked like when you were a one-year-old now or a few months old.

Mr. BERGER: Yes, mm-hmm.

SIEGEL: Yes.

Mr. BERGER: That's the next step.

SIEGEL: Well, Professor Berger, thank you very much for talking with us about it.

Mr. BERGER: Thank you. It's been my pleasure.

SIEGEL: That's Edo Berger, assistant professor of astronomy at Harvard, talking about the event that was picked up last week, first detected by a NASA satellite, the most distant - or the oldest object ever observed. It happened 13 billion light years away.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: