A Gamma-ray burst from the primordial universe sent astronomers reeling earlier this year with the most distant sighting yet. The burst was picked up by NASA’s Swift spacecraft on April 23, 2009 at 3:55 EDT. E-mails and instant messages flew to observatories around the globe as astronomers raced to pin-point the fading afterglow. Dubbed GRB 090423, (get the year/month/day thing?) This burst measures in at a redshift of 8.2, or a distance of 13.035 billion light years. This hails from a time when the universe was a tender young age of only 630 years old, young, compared to our circa 14 billion year current age. The old record was a red shift of 6.7 set in September 2008. the current “holy grail” in cosmology is to break the “redshift 10″ barrier, which may well happen in the coming year. A gamma-ray burst occurs when a super massive star collapses into a black hole, briefly creating a “hyper-nova” in the process. Such events are the most luminous in the universe and are thought to have been common amoung first generation stars. Backup observations were provided by Italy’s Galileo national telescope in the Canary Islands and the ESO’s Very Large Telescope in Chile.
The formerly ailing Hubble Space Telescope spied something remarkable earlier this year; a rapidly expanding jet around the massive galaxy M87. Dubbed HST-1, this blob of matter is the first object with a Hubble designation, and has been tracked for over seven years. Brighter than the galaxies’ own core, the gas knot is 214 light years from the core and receding. M87 is visible in the constellation Virgo with a backyard telescope, and is part of the massive Virgo cluster of galaxies about 54 million light years away. The growth of the brightness of the jet expanded by 90 fold over the past decade, giving astronomers the opportunity to examine an active galactic nucleus in action. As the refurbished Hubble begins to strut its stuff, doubtless HST-1 will be an object of increased scrutiny!
Let the staring begin… the Kepler spacecraft has its shutters open and is now ready for business. Just out the gate, the results have been astounding. First, there was the discovery of HAT-P-7b, a transiting exo-planet that was spotted last month, complete with atmosphere. Now, calculations have shown that Kepler may be sensitive enough during the span of its four year mission to detect another first; exo-moons, or Earth-mass moons orbiting Saturn-mass planets. Kepler is in an Earth trailing orbit and sports a 0.95 meter 95 mega pixel (that’s an array of 42 2200×1024 pixel each CCDs!) aperture camera that will stare at the star-rich Cygnus-Lyra region looking for tiny dips in the apparent brightness of over a 100,000 stars. Expect the tally of new exo-planets to climb in the coming months!