This image shows the afterglow of GRB 090423 (red source in the centre) and was created from images taken in the z, Y and J filters at Gemini-South and VLT (credit: A. J. Levan).
On April 23, 2009 the Swift satellite detected a gamma ray burst and as we reported back in April, scientists soon realized that it was more than 13 billion light-years from Earth. GRB 090423 occurred 630 million years after the Big Bang, when the Universe was only four percent of its current age of 13.7 billion years. Now, continued observations of the GRB by astronomers around the world have yielded more information about this dramatic and ancient event: the GRB didn’t come from a monster star, but it produced a fairly sizable explosion.
Several of the world’s largest telescopes turned to the region of the sky within the next minutes and hours after Swift’s announcement of the GRB’s detection, and were able to locate the faint, fading afterglow of the GRB. Detailed analysis revealed that the afterglow was seen only in infrared light and not in the normal optical. This was the clue that the burst came from very great distance.
The Very Large Array radio telescope first looked for the object the day after the discovery, detected the first radio waves from the blast a week later, then recorded changes in the object until it faded from view more than two months later.
Astronomers have thought that the very first stars in the Universe might be very different — brighter, hotter, and more massive — from those that formed later.
“This explosion provides an unprecedented look at an era when the Universe was very young and also was undergoing drastic changes. The primal cosmic darkness was being pierced by the light of the first stars and the first galaxies were beginning to form. The star that exploded in this event was a member of one of these earliest generations of stars,” said Dale Frail of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory.
Universe Today spoke with Edo Berger with the Gemini Telescope shortly after the GRB was detected, and he said the burst itself was not all that unusual. But even that can convey a lot of information. “That might mean that even these early generations of stars are very similar to stars in the local universe, that when they die they seem to produce similar types of gamma ray bursts, but it might be a little early to speculate.”
“This happened a little more than 13 billion years ago,” said Berger. “We’ve essentially been able to find gamma ray bursts throughout the Universe. The nearest ones are only about 100 million light years away, and this most distant one is 13 billion light years away, so it seems that they populate the entire universe. This most distant one demonstrates for the first time that massive stars exist at those very high red shifts. This is something people have suspected for a long time, but there was no direct observational proof. So that is one of the cool results from this observation.”
The scientists concluded the explosion was more energetic than most GRBs, but was certainly not the most energetic ever detected. The blast was nearly spherical that expanded into a tenuous and relatively uniform gaseous medium surrounding the star.
“It’s important to study these explosions with many kinds of telescopes. Our research team combined data from the VLA with data from X-ray and infrared telescopes to piece together some of the physical conditions of the blast,” said Derek Fox of Pennsylvania State University. “The result is a unique look into the very early Universe that we couldn’t have gotten any other way,” he added.
Sources: NRAO, University of Leicester
Nancy Atkinson is currently Universe Today’s Contributing Editor. Previously she served as UT’s Senior Editor and lead writer, and has worked with Astronomy Cast and 365 Days of Astronomy. Nancy is the author of the new book “Incredible Stories from Space: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Missions Changing Our View of the Cosmos.” She is also a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.