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Astronomers Detect Most Distant Object Ever Seen

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Astronomers Detect Most Distant Object Ever Seen

Science

Astronomers Detect Most Distant Object Ever Seen

Astronomers Detect Most Distant Object Ever Seen

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/114246224/114271826" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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The red dot at the center of this image is the only light left over from the star that collapsed on itself when the universe was 600 million years old. A.J.Levan and N.R.Tanvir/Nature hide caption

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A.J.Levan and N.R.Tanvir/Nature

The red dot at the center of this image is the only light left over from the star that collapsed on itself when the universe was 600 million years old.

A.J.Levan and N.R.Tanvir/Nature

Astronomers say they've detected the most distant object anyone has yet seen from Earth.

Two teams of scientists actually made the discovery, which they report in the current issue of Nature. Nial Tanvir from the University of Leicester in England was one of the teams:

"The thing that we discovered is a gamma ray burst," he says. "It's a kind of exploding star. These things are brighter than anything else we know of in the universe. In principle we can see them very far away but they're incredibly rare."

The astronomers used a NASA satellite called Swift to find bursts of gamma rays. They then scrambled to figure out where they came from. It turns out that when the universe was only about 600 million years old, a giant star collapsed on itself and turned into a black hole. That created a spectacular explosion, which in turn produced huge jets of radiation: gamma rays. The rays from that explosion took 13 billion years to reach Earth, finally arriving on April 23.

Then, two teams of scientists in Europe figured out that the star that exploded was the most distant object anyone has seen to date.

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"It was absolutely thrilling — a spine-tingling moment, actually," Tanvir says.

The scientists report their discovery in Nature magazine. It's not only a thrill for the astronomers, but it's a rare glimpse at what our universe looked like when it was only five percent of its current age.

VIDEO: Gamma Ray Bursts

A video from Nature explains how gamma ray bursts occur and how we detect them from Earth.