Magazine article Science News

Galaxy Spotlights Far-Off Supernova: Detection Method Could Help Measure Universe's Expansion

Magazine article Science News

Galaxy Spotlights Far-Off Supernova: Detection Method Could Help Measure Universe's Expansion

Article excerpt

An immense cosmic magnifying glass has given astronomers an unprecedented view of a distant exploding star. The discovery demonstrates that scientists can spot supernovas that are seemingly too far away to be detected.

The supernova PS1-10afx, located more than 9 billion light-years away, first appeared in 2010 images from the Pan-STARRS1 sky survey. It shined about 30 times as brightly as a typical supernova at that distance. Last April, a team including astronomer Robert Kirshner from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics published a study that classified PS1-10afx as a new type of ultrabright supernova.

But Robert Quimby, an astronomer at the Kavli Institute for the Physics and Mathematics of the Universe near Tokyo, was skeptical. He found that nearly every measurable characteristic of the supernova--including its color, temperature and duration of peak brightness--matched the profile of the most commonly found supernova, called type la. The only thing that set PS1-10afx apart was its extreme brightness.

Quimby wondered if something had made the supernova appear brighter than it actually was. He knew that the intense gravity of galaxies and other massive objects causes light to bend around them. If such a galaxy is positioned directly between a distant object and Earth, this light-bending effect can make the faraway object appear much brighter, analogous to the way a magnifying glass bends light to enlarge a faint object. This effect is called gravitational lensing. …

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