Gamma-ray bursts are the brightest known electromagnetic events in the universe.
A typical burst will release as much energy in a few seconds as our Sun will release in its entire lifetime (estimated to be around 10 billion years).
In April, NASA issued a press release about the detection of a gamma-ray burst from a star that died when the universe was only 630 million years old, or about 5 percent of its current age (the universe is currently 13.7 billion years old).
The burst is the most distant -- and thus, oldest -- cosmic event ever seen.
The remarkable event was dubbed -- in NASA's rather un-catchy lexicon -- GRB 090423.
"The burst most likely arose from the explosion of a massive star," said Derek Fox at Pennsylvania State University. "We're seeing the demise of a star -- and probably the birth of a black hole -- in one of the universe's earliest stellar generations."
Now, the October 29 issue of Nature presents analyses of this Ur-explosion and its afterglow, offering some clues as to what it must have been like in the early days of our universe.
"These are spectacular discoveries, and open up unprecedented new windows on the early Universe," said Edison Liang, an astrophysicist at Rice University in Houston, Texas.
Nial Tanvir of the University of Leicester in the United Kingdom, one of the lead scientists working on characterizing the ancient burst, said, "We're now starting to approach the time when we think the very first galaxies turned on."
"It's one thing to explore such remote recesses of time in theory. It's something else again to witness their afterglow," according to a New York Times op-ed.
"GRB 090423 is an invitation for all of us to unfetter our imaginations. We imagine looking outward from that distant point knowing that our own exploration still lies some 13 billion years in the future."
- Visit NASA's Astronomy Picture of the Day Web site
- Participate in the International Year of Astronomy 2009
- Sign a petition to add the option for US taxpayers to contribute to NASA on the IRS 1040 tax form
- See what's in the sky tonight
- Buy a telescope from the Discovery Channel store
- Galaxy IC-10 (October 9, 2009)
- Planet Hunters (October 6, 2009)
- Reclaiming the Night Sky (October 2, 2009)
- Star Light, Star Bright (September 25, 2009)
- Seeing the Mother of Mars (September 18, 2009)
- Hubble Captures a Butterfly (September 11, 2009)
- Looking Into Space from the Coldest Place on Earth (September 3, 2009)
- Viewing Victoria (August 31, 2009)
- Let There Be Light (August 19, 2009)
- Where Stars Are Born (July 16, 2009)
- Kepler and the Gate to the Black Forest (February 15, 2009)
- A Smashing Reunion for the Galaxy Twins? (February 9, 2009)