January 26, 2015

31.05.11: Cosmic Distance Record Broken?

GRB 090429B as seen by Swift. (Credit: NASA/Swift/Stefan Immler).

Last week, a new possible record smasher was announced in the realm of cosmology. It seems that every few months, we get another “largest, biggest, farthest” in the world of gamma-ray bursters. This one, designated GRB 090429B was discovered by NASAs Swift satellite and recent photometric calculations place its redshift at z=9.4, which would make it about 13.14 billion light years distant. Yes, that would place its age in the hundreds of millions of years, right about the time the first primordial galaxies formed… so, is the record broken? Perhaps… several distant ancient galaxy contenders also lie at the 13.07 to 13.28 billion light year distance. When all of the uncertainties are tallied up, GRB 090429B poses a 23% chance of grabbing the current record… and the news will have another spate of “Most Distant!” headlines to parrot once again.

But the announcement of this discovery does signify a greater overall tread in modern cosmology; with such cutting edge detection platforms as Fermi, Swift, and the VERITAS array, high energy astronomy and cosmology has been maturing into a diverse field of study. Just think, prior to the 1967 detections by the Vela satellites we had never even detected gamma-ray bursts, some of the most energetic events in the universe. It took decades longer of cosmologists to design a model that explained these exotic beasts. That the record-breaking has been coming hard and heavy is a sure sign of the efficacy of our detection methods. Can “baby pictures” of our infant universe be far behind?


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