Confirmed! DES16C2nm is the Most Distant Supernova Yet!

Image Source: NASA

Image Source: NASA

We’re always trying to find new ways to see further out into the universe.  Because of the way light travels, seeing further allows us to see back in time, closer to the beginning of the universe.

This enables researchers to better understand where the universe came from and where it might be going in the future. A new discovery of a distant supernova is giving us a peek further back than ever before.  What is this discovery and what does it mean for the future of astronomy?

The Dark Energy Survey (DES)

The Dark Energy survey is an international collaboration that has one goal — map hundreds of millions of galaxies and find patterns in the cosmos that will provide a few pieces to this intergalactic puzzle. They are specifically looking for dark energy, a type of previously undetectable energy that is accelerating the expansion of the universe.

The project is based on a theory by Albert Einstein and the observations of two teams of astronomers from the 1990s. Einstein’s Theory of Relativity states that gravity in the cosmos should be gradually slowing the cosmic expansion, pulling interstellar bodies closer together. In 1992, astronomers discovered that the exact opposite is happening — the universe is continuing to expand faster and faster.

They theorized that either the universe is made up of dark energy, which has opposite gravitational forces and is pushing the universe apart, or the theory of relativity doesn’t apply in interstellar space. The DES was born in an effort to detect dark energy and learn more about the expansion of the universe.

The Oldest Supernova

Spotting supernovas is an exciting event at DES — these massive interstellar explosions give us a peek back in time, letting us see what the universe looked like millions or even billions of years ago.  The most recently observed explosion, designated DES16C2nm is letting them look further back than ever before. The star exploded roughly 10.3 billion years ago. That’s roughly ¾ of the age of the entire universe.

It’s brighter than most other supernovas — classified as a superluminious supernova, this discovery is extremely rare and this has astronomers all over the world excited.

Scientists were able to confirm that this supernova was caused by a neutron star collapsing under its own weight, giving them some unique insight into the creation of superluminous supernovas in general. Neutron stars are already very dense and very small — usually only around 32 miles in diameter— so the fact that a neutron star could create such a brilliant supernova is astonishing. This supernova is 10 times brighter than any other standard supernova, even at its great distance.

The Future of Astronomy

We still don’t know why the universe is expanding faster than the Theory of Relativity says it should be expanding, but for astronomers, this is turning out to be a good thing.  The increased expansion is stretching the light wavelengths into ones that are actually visible from earth — we’d never have been able to see this supernova otherwise.

DES16C2nm isn’t actually the furthest supernova that’s been observed — it’s just the first one that has been confirmed spectroscopically. Researchers were able to examine the light waves moving away from the supernova to confirm its identity.

Even if it wasn’t the first superluminous supernova discovery, this definitely won’t be the last — with new telescopes being set up in the next decade to help us see further and further than ever before, these discoveries may become more commonplace and may actually help us figure out our place in the universe.  In the grand scheme of things, we’ve only been here for a fraction of a second — the universe will continue to exist long after we’ve gone, but while we’re here it’s the perfect opportunity to study it.



Written By: Megan Ray Nichols – Science Writer  www.schooledbyscience.com/about/  Contact: nicholsrmegan@gmail.com

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