Wednesday, April 29, 2009

13 Billion Years

That’s billion with a “B.”

Well over 13 billion years ago, a massive star, perhaps 100 times the size of our sun, exploded in a supernova. As it happens, sometimes the entire force of a supernova explosion can be focused and concentrated in two beams of insane energy blasting out in opposite directions from the core.

Artist's rendering of a supernova "going gamma."

These events are called gamma ray bursts and we don’t really know why or how they happen but we do know that they represent the strongest and brightest events in the universe

In 2004 NASA launched the Swift Satellite to detect gamma ray bursts (GRB’s in space-geek parlance). Swift has recorded hundreds of GRB’s but this one, designated GRB 090423A is, is the most distant discrete object ever detected in the universe.

The light from GRB 090423A had been traveling for over 13 billion years before it hit the detector on Swift.

There it is. GRB 090423A. One hell of a speck.

That’s 13 billion years – almost the entire history of the universe - of light-speed travel through interstellar and intergalactic space, through patches of dust and vast voids of empty space.

Holy shit right?

(Actually, the universe was only 630 million years old at the time of the supernova. Just a baby universe really, that probably even lacked the heavy elements needed to form planets.)

Back on September 10, 2008 I posted about a GRB that reached us in March, 2008. In that case, the beams of light and energy hit the earth right between the eyes. That particular GRB originated some 7.5 billion light years away which is good because if we had been any closer, say just a million light years away, our atmosphere would have been ripped away, the oceans would have boiled and the planet would have been soaked in a million times the lethal dose of high-energy gamma and X-rays.

It just goes to show that the universe is a monster, huge beyond comprehension and extremely hostile to our puny little lives.

Thanks to Phil Plait’s Bad Astronomy Blog for the news.

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