The most distant supernova ever seen has been described by scientists at the 221st American Astronomical Society meeting this week.
Nicknamed Mingus — after the jazz musician Charlie Mingus — Supernova SN SCP-0401 was a chance find in a routine survey that began in 2004 and was carried out in part by the Supernova Cosmology Project (SCP) using the Hubble space telescope.
For a sense of perspective on the distance between the phenomena and planet earth, David Rubin of the University of California, Berkeley, the lead author on the study, said:
“This supernova is about as bright as a firefly viewed from 3,000 miles away.”
It wasn’t until astronauts installed the Wide Field Camera 3 on the Hubble telescope in 2009 and fixed it on the anomaly that they could positively identify it.
“Unfortunately, it took the development of Wide Field Camera 3 to bring home what the  measurements meant,” Rubin told BBC News. Adding, “The sensitivity is a few times better, which makes a huge difference, and we have a much cleaner image.”
The scientific team went on to confirm that the supernova was a Type 1a, a “dead” white exploded dwarf star whose light occurs in such a regular way that it is known as a “standard candle.”
Astronomers are now hoping the ten billion light-years distant Mingus will help them understand more about so-called dark energy, the force that appears to be accelerating cosmic expansion.
According to Space.com, study of other Type 1a supernovae in 1998 enabled two teams of researchers to determine that the universe’s expansion is speeding up because of an unseen force called dark energy.
The two groups shared the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics for that discovery. One of the scientists in that original project was Professor Saul Perlmutter, who now leads the Supernova Cosmology Project.
“We’re seeing two-thirds of the way back to the beginning of the Universe, and we’re getting a little bit of history where the physics of what makes a supernova explode have to all work out the same way there as they do near here,” Perlmutter says.
Such is the mystery surrounding dark energy that a five-year project using the most powerful camera known has still not unraveled the force. Understanding “dark energy” will require painstaking study of all supernovae known to as far back as the earliest stars.
Joshua Frieman, director of the Dark Energy Survey project told BBC News:
“What they’re doing is using the Hubble telescope to go really deep – we’re going to use the Dark Energy Survey to go very broad.”
“They’re finding tens of supernovae at these high [distances], and we’re going to find thousands of supernovae not quite as deep. You really need both of those together to really make progress in trying to figure out why the Universe is speeding up.”
How they’re doing that is by utilizing a Dark Energy Camera. After taking its first images in September 2012, it will begin its mission proper in September this year.
Mingus should help astronomers better understand dark energy’s possible variation over the universe’s long history, researchers said. The camera is not only trained on supernovae but three other dark-energy signatures in the cosmos, said Space.com.
Call it irony or the poetry of the cosmos, but the light of supernovas could help scientists to discover the secrets of the darkest energy of all.
The team’s findings will be published online in the Astrophysical Journal on January 20.