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Hubble Telescope Photographs Farthest Supernova Yet

Apr 04, 2013 04:08 PM EDT

Astronomers at NASA have spotted the most distant supernova yet of the type used to measure cosmic distances; in fact, the event took place so far away that as scientists watched it, they were watching an event that took place 10 billion years ago. 

Nicknamed SN Wilson, the phenomenon is specifically classified as a Type 1a supernova and was discovered as part of a three-year-initiative to find the farthest supernoovae possible in hopes that they may offer scientists a sense of how the Universe has expanded ever since the Big Bang.

The Type 1a supernova is especially useful for scientists, according to a statement from NASA, because of their ability to provide a consistent level of brightness that can in turn be used to measure the expansion of space. 

"This new distance record holder opens a window into the early universe, offering important new insights into how these stars explode," said research leader David Jones of John Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md., in the press release. "We can test theories about how reliable these detonations are for understanding the evolution of the universe and its expansion."

Specifically, knowing how quickly supernovae explode will help scientists better understand how quickly the Universe had the materials it needed to start creating planets and other celestial formations.

"If supernovae were popcorn, the question is how long before they start popping?" Adam Riess, an astronomer at the Space Telescope Institute, said in the release. "You may have different theories about what is going on in the kernel. If you see when the first kernels popped and how often they popped, it tells you something important about the process of popping corn."

Furthermore, scientists hope it will help them understand what triggers the huge explosions. 

In all, SN Wilson, named after the 28th U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, is only 4 percent farther than the last most distant supernova of its kind, according to NASA officials. Still, however, that 4 percent amounts to a total of 350 million years further back in time.  

Researchers plan on publishing their findings in the upcoming issue of "The Astrophysical Journal."

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