The farthest we have 'seen' in space just got a little farther away, thanks to ESO's Very Large Telescope and GRB (Gamma Ray Burst) 090423.

VLT has shown that a faint gamma-ray burst detected last Thursday is the signature of the explosion of the earliest, most distant known object in the Universe (a redshift of 8.2). The explosion apparently took place more than 13 billion years ago, only about 600 million years after the Big Bang.

The previous record holder for the most distant GRB — first detected by Swift last year and then also studied with the VLT — had a redshift of 6.7. The blast, designated GRB 080913, arose from a star exploding about 200 million years after GRB090423.   The previous most distant object known in the Universe confirmed spectroscopically is a galaxy with a redshift of 6.96, called I0K-1 that lies so far away that astronomers are seeing it as it appeared 12.88 billion years ago.

Gamma-ray bursts (GRBs) are powerful flashes of energetic gamma-rays lasting from less than a second to several minutes. They release a tremendous amount of energy in this short time making them the most powerful events in the Universe. They are thought to be mostly associated with the explosion of stars that collapse into black holes.   Gamma-ray bursts are also the universe's most luminous explosions. Most occur when massive stars run out of nuclear fuel. As their cores collapse into a black hole or neutron star, gas jets — driven by processes not fully understood — punch through the star and blast into space. There, they strike gas previously shed by the star and heat it, which generates short-lived afterglows in many wavelengths.

GRB090423 GRB 090423
Artistic impression of a gamma ray burst like GRB090423.   They release a tremendous amount of energy in this short time making them the most powerful events in the Universe. They are thought to be mostly associated with the explosion of stars that collapse into black holes. In the explosion, two jets of very fast-moving material are ejected, as depicted in this artist’s illustration. If a jet happens to be aimed at Earth, we see a brief but powerful gamma-ray burst.  Credit: ESO/A. Roquette

The gamma-ray burst GRB 090423 was detected by the NASA/STFC/ASI Swift satellite during the morning (CEST) of Thursday 23 April 2009. The 10 second burst was located in the constellation of Leo (the Lion). It was soon being followed by a whole range of telescopes on the ground, including the 2.2-metre ESO/MPG telescope at La Silla and ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) at Paranal, both in Chile. 

VLT infrared observations, made 17 hours after the burst detection, allowed astronomers to establish the distance to the explosion.

 “We find that the light coming from the explosion has been stretched, or redshifted, considerably by the expansion of the Universe”, says Nial Tanvir, the leader of the team who made the VLT observations. “With a redshift of 8.2 this is the most remote gamma-ray burst ever detected, and also the most distant object ever discovered — by some way.”

Gamma-ray bursts are discovered by telescopes in space. After releasing their intense burst of high-energy radiation, they become detectable for a short while in the optical and in the near-infrared. This ‘afterglow’ fades very rapidly, making detailed analysis possible for only a few hours after the gamma-ray detection. This analysis is important in particular in order to determine the GRB's distance and, hence, intrinsic brightness.  Because light moves at a finite speed, looking farther into the Universe means looking back in time. The explosion occurred when the Universe was about 600 million years old, less than 5 percent of its current age. It is believed that the very first stars only formed when the Universe was between 200 and 400 million years old. 

“This discovery proves the importance of gamma-ray bursts in probing the most distant parts of the Universe”, says Tanvir. “We can now be confident that even more remote bursts will be found in the future, which will open a window to studying the very first stars and the ultimate end of the Dark Age of the Universe.”

The ISAAC observations at the VLT were done on behalf of an international collaboration by N. Tanvir (U. Leicester, UK), A. Levan (U. Warwick, UK), K. Wiersema (U. Leicester, UK), J. Fynbo and J. Hjorth (Dark Cosmology Centre, Copenhagen, Denmark), and P. Jakobsson (Reykjavik, Iceland). 

The GROND observations with the 2.2-metre ESO/MPG telescope at La Silla were made by F. Olivares, T. Krühler, J. Greiner and R. Filgas (Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics, Garching, Germany).