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NASA's Hubble Breaks New Ground With Distant Supernova Discovery

Jan. 11, 2012

Trent J. Perrotto
Headquarters, Washington

Donna Weaver / Ray Villard
Space Science Telescope Institute, Baltimore
410-338-4493 / 410-338-4514
dweaver@xxxxxxxxx  / villard@xxxxxxxxx

RELEASE: 12-011


WASHINGTON -- NASA's Hubble Space Telescope has looked deep into the 
distant universe and detected the feeble glow of a star that exploded 
more than 9 billion years ago. The sighting is the first finding of 
an ambitious survey that will help astronomers place better 
constraints on the nature of dark energy, the mysterious repulsive 
force that is causing the universe to fly apart ever faster.

"For decades, astronomers have harnessed the power of Hubble to 
unravel the mysteries of the universe," said John Grunsfeld, 
associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in 
Washington. "This new observation builds upon the revolutionary 
research using Hubble that won astronomers the 2011 Nobel Prize in 
Physics, while bringing us a step closer to understanding the nature 
of dark energy which drives the cosmic acceleration." As an 
astronaut, Grunsfeld visited Hubble three times, performing a total 
of eight spacewalks to service and upgrade the observatory.

The stellar explosion, nicknamed SN Primo, belongs to a special class 
called Type Ia supernovae, which are bright beacons used as distance 
markers for studying the expansion rate of the universe. Type Ia 
supernovae likely arise when white dwarf stars, the burned-out cores 
of normal stars, siphon too much material from their companion stars 
and explode.

SN Primo is the farthest Type Ia supernova with its distance confirmed 
through spectroscopic observations. In these types of observations, a 
spectrum splits the light from a supernova into its constituent 
colors. By analyzing those colors, astronomers can confirm its 
distance by measuring how much the supernova's light has been 
stretched, or red-shifted, into near-infrared wavelengths because of 
the expansion of the universe.

The supernova was discovered as part of a three-year Hubble program to 
survey faraway Type Ia supernovae, opening a new distance realm for 
searching for this special class of stellar explosion. The remote 
supernovae will help astronomers determine whether the exploding 
stars remain dependable cosmic yardsticks across vast distances of 
space in an epoch when the cosmos was only one-third its current age 
of 13.7 billion years.

Called the CANDELS+CLASH Supernova Project, the census uses the 
sharpness and versatility of Hubble's Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC3) to 
assist astronomers in the search for supernovae in near-infrared 
light and verify their distance with spectroscopy. CANDELS is the 
Cosmic Assembly Near-infrared Deep Extragalactic Legacy Survey and 
CLASH is the Cluster Lensing and Supernova Survey.

"In our search for supernovae, we had gone as far as we could go in 
optical light," said Adam Riess, the project's lead investigator, at 
the Space Telescope Science Institute and The Johns Hopkins 
University in Baltimore, Md. "But it's only the beginning of what we 
can do in infrared light. This discovery demonstrates that we can use 
the Wide Field Camera 3 to search for supernovae in the distant 

The new results were presented on Jan. 11 at the American Astronomical 
Society meeting in Austin, Texas.

The supernova team's search technique involved taking multiple 
near-infrared images over several months, looking for a supernova's 
faint glow. After the team spotted the stellar blast in October 2010, 
they used WFC3's spectrometer to verify SN Primo's distance and to 
decode its light, finding the unique signature of a Type Ia 
supernova. The team then re-imaged SN Primo periodically for eight 
months, measuring the slow dimming of its light.

By taking the census, the astronomers hope to determine the frequency 
of Type Ia supernovae during the early universe and glean insights 
into the mechanisms that detonated them.

"If we look into the early universe and measure a drop in the number 
of supernovae, then it could be that it takes a long time to make a 
Type Ia supernova," said team member Steve Rodney of The Johns 
Hopkins University. "Like corn kernels in a pan waiting for the oil 
to heat up, the stars haven't had enough time at that epoch to evolve 
to the point of explosion. However, if supernovae form very quickly, 
like microwave popcorn, then they will be immediately visible, and 
we'll find many of them, even when the universe was very young. Each 
supernova is unique, so it's possible that there are multiple ways to 
make a supernova."

If astronomers discover that Type Ia supernovae begin to depart from 
how they expect them to look, they might be able to gauge those 
changes and make the measurements of dark energy more precise. Riess 
and two other astronomers shared the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics for 
discovering dark energy 13 years ago, using Type Ia supernova to plot 
the universe's expansion rate.

The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international cooperation 
between NASA and the European Space Agency. NASA's Goddard Space 
Flight Center manages the telescope. The Space Telescope Science 
Institute (STScI) conducts Hubble science operations. STScI is 
operated for NASA by the Association of Universities for Research in 
Astronomy, Inc., in Washington, D.C.

For images and more information about Hubble, visit:



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