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Intense light from the enormous explosion of a star more than 12 billion years ago — shortly after the Big Bang — recently reached Earth and was visible in the sky. Known as a gamma-ray burst, light from the rare, high-energy explosion traveled for 12.1 billion years before it was detected and observed by a telescope, ROTSE-IIIb, owned by Southern Methodist University. SMU physicists report that their telescope was the first on the ground to observe the burst and to capture an image, said Farley Ferrante, a graduate student in SMU’s Department of Physics, who monitored the observations along with two astronomers in Turkey and Hawaii.

Recorded as GRB 140419A by NASA’s Gamma-ray Coordinates Network, the burst was spotted at 11 p.m. April 19 by SMU’s robotic telescope at the McDonald Observatory in the Davis Mountains of West Texas.

“As NASA points out, gamma-ray bursts are the most powerful explosions in the universe since the Big Bang,” Ferrante said. said. “These bursts release more energy in 10 seconds than our Earth’s sun during its entire expected lifespan of 10 billion years.”

Some of these gamma-ray bursts appear to be related to supernovae, and correspond to the end-of-life of a massive star, said Robert Kehoe, physics professor and leader of the SMU astronomy team.

Gamma-ray bursts may be particularly massive cousins to supernovae, or may correspond to cases in which the explosion ejecta are more beamed in our direction. By studying them, we learn about supernovae,” Kehoe said.

Scientists weren’t able to detect optical light from gamma-ray bursts until the late 1990s, when telescope technology improved. Among all lights in the electromagnetic spectrum, gamma rays have the shortest wavelengths and are visible only using special detectors.

Gamma-ray bursts result from hot stars that measure as enormous as 50 solar masses. The explosion occurs when the stars run out of fuel and collapse in on themselves, forming black holes.

The ROTSE-IIIb robotic telescope at McDonald Observatory, Fort Davis, Texas. (Photo: McDonald Observatory)
The ROTSE-IIIb robotic telescope at McDonald Observatory, Fort Davis, Texas. (Photo: McDonald Observatory)
Outer layers detonate, shooting out material along the rotation axis in powerful, high-energy jets that include gamma radiation.

As the gamma radiation declines, the explosion produces an afterglow of visible optical light. The light, in turn, fades very quickly, said Kehoe. Physicists calculate the distance of the explosion based on the shifting wavelength of the light, or redshift.

“The optical light is visible for anywhere from a few seconds to a few hours,” Kehoe said. “Sometimes optical telescopes can capture the spectra. This allows us to calculate the redshift of the light, which tells us how fast the light is moving away from us. This is an indirect indication of the distance from us.”

Observational data from gamma-ray bursts allows scientists to understand structure of the early universe
To put into context the age of the new gamma-ray burst discoveries, Kehoe and Ferrante point out that the Big Bang occurred 13.81 billion years ago. GRB 140419A is at a red shift of 3.96, Ferrante said.

“That means that GRB 140419A exploded about 12.1 billion years ago,” he said, “which is only about one-and-a-half billion years after the universe began. That is really old.”

Armed with images of the burst, astronomers can analyze the observational data to draw further conclusions about the structure of the early universe.

“At the time of this gamma-ray burst’s explosion, the universe looked vastly different than it does now,” Kehoe said. “It was an early stage of galaxy formation. There weren’t heavy elements to make Earth-like planets. So this is a glimpse at the early universe. Observing gamma-ray bursts is important for gaining information about the early universe.”

GRB 140419A’s brightness, measured by its ability to be seen by someone on Earth, was of the 12th magnitude, Kehoe said, indicating it was only 10 times dimmer than what is visible through binoculars, and only 200 times dimmer than the human eye can see, Kehoe said.

“The difference in brightness is about the same as between the brightest star you can see in the sky, and the dimmest you can see with the naked eye on a clear, dark night,” Kehoe said. “Considering this thing was at the edge of the visible universe, that’s an extreme explosion. That was something big. Really big.”

SMU telescope responded to NASA satellite’s detection and notification
SMU’s Robotic Optical Transient Search Experiment (ROTSE) IIIb is a robotic telescope. It is part of a network of ground telescopes responsive to a NASA satellite that is central to the space agency’s Swift Gamma-Ray Burst Mission. Images of the gamma-ray bursts are at

When the Swift satellite detects a gamma-ray burst, it instantly relays the location. Telescopes around the world, such as SMU’s ROTSE-IIIb, swing into action to observe the burst’s afterglow and capture images, said Govinda Dhungana, an SMU graduate student who participated in the gamma-ray burst research.

SMU’s ROTSE-IIIb observes optical emission from several gamma-ray bursts each year. It observed GRB 140419A just 55 seconds after the burst was detected by Swift.

Just days later, ROTSE-IIIb observed and reported a second rare and distant gamma-ray burst, GRB 140423A, at 3:30 a.m. April 23. The redshift of that burst corresponds to a look back in time of 11.8 billion years. ROTSE-IIIb observed it 51 seconds after the burst was detected by Swift.

“We have the brightest detection and the earliest response on both of those because our telescope is fully robotic and no human hands were involved,” Ferrante said.

Ferrante, the first to check observations on GRB 140423A, is first-author on that gamma-ray burst. Tolga Guver, associate professor in the Department of Astronomy and Space Sciences at Istanbul University, Turkey, is second author. On GRB 140419A, Guver is first author and Ferrante is second.

The Daily Galaxy via SMU

Image credit: NASA/Swift/Cruz deWilde)


" shortly after the Big Bang" lol, if it was that "soon" , the Universe was too small, that star must of been so close to us. How come it got here 12 billion years later ? Or again matter (from the new born universe ) traveled much faster than the speed of light (just cause you want and say so) in the first 2 billion years...

What took so long?

seem to violate the theory of relativity, if we/us (matter) arrived here way before the (light)... was Einstein wrong about speed of light or how is this possible?

and again how is this even possible- does light not face entropy? how exactly does light travel for 12 billion years and remain unchanged?

and how does light travel so fast without a propulsion system?

Theoretically, the big bang exploded in a big globe, shooting matter in every direction. I would assume that this gamma ray burst comes from the other side of the center.

The age of this universe is 13.8 billion years young, so if the light emitted is 12 billion years old what happened 1.8 billion years? What travel faster matter or energy? We are not on the edge of the universe, some where in the middle, so for the tortoise of gamma rays to reach the outer rim of the universe; it would take another 12 billion years? The material that created the galaxies have been here for billions of years, it is only now that the light of the big bang shows up.

The story of the tortoise (gamma rays) and the hare (matter); does it really matter?

Doesn't it dawn on anybody that nearly all places and objects at the time of the Big Bang were in the same place? ... so if some energy burst happens not long after, it doesn't have far to travel, so how exactly did it take 13+ (or 30+) billion years for the energy to get to Earth?

Jeff - the obvious solution is that the universe, or at least our universe, did not start out as a single entity, and then expand.
A possible solution, however far fetched, is that the multi-verse does exist, and that these gamma ray bursts are windows (for lack of a better term) that open and close to other universes.

It's possible because of the space-time expansion, which can be faster than the speed of light. So, it's not the objects themselves rushing faster than light, it's the very fabric of universe 'stretching'. There is a difference between 'expansion and motion'. And the space-time is expanding.

Nearly everyone who's posted here as noticed the elephant in the living room. Notice that nothing is mentioned of the spectral characteristics of this gamma-ray burst. All bursters show heavy-metals in some combination, which, again, goes against the length of time its star (or small galaxy) could have formed, existed, then died creating the gamma-ray burst. I'd say that, setting aside the BB theory for a moment, what astronomers have witnessed in this particular burst is a gamma-ray burster 12 billion light years away . . . not at the beginning of time, just at a point in the universe 12 billion light years distant. The universe is infinitely old.

I am a little late to the party, not 12.5 billion years late, but late none the less.

I tend to agree with Ela With regard to speed of light and the "smallness" of the universe back in the day... How long did "expansion" take place? Space can expand faster than the speed of light so that might explain why we did not notice the good die young event until just recently. I would vote against a multi-verse rationale for the length of time it took for the GRB to show up.

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