Supernovas are traditionally named after composers

10 January 2013 Last updated at 00:14 ET

Supernova ‘Mingus’ could shed light on dark energy

By Jason Palmer
Science and technology reporter, BBC News, Long Beach, California

Astronomers have spotted the most distant supernova ever seen.

Nicknamed “Mingus”, it was described at the 221st American Astronomical Society meeting in the US.

These lightshows of dying stars have been seen since ancient times, but modern astronomers use details of their light to probe the Universe’s secrets.

Ten billion light-years distant, Mingus will help shed light on so-called dark energy, the force that appears to be speeding up cosmic expansion.

Formally called SN SCP-0401, the supernova was something of a chance find in a survey carried out in part by the Supernova Cosmology Project (SCP) using the Hubble space telescope, first undertaken in 2004.

But the data were simply not good enough to pin down what was seen. As David Rubin of the University of California, Berkeley, lead author on the study, told the AAS meeting, “for a sense of brightness, this supernova is about as bright as a firefly viewed from 3,000 miles away”.

Further news had to wait until astronauts installed the Wide Field Camera 3 on the Hubble telescope in 2009 and again trained it on the candidate, which had – in an SCP tradition of naming supernovae after composers – already been named after jazz musician Charles Mingus.

“Unfortunately, it took the development of Wide Field Camera 3 to bring home what the [2004] measurements meant,” Mr Rubin told BBC News.

“The sensitivity is a few times better, which makes a huge difference, and we have a much cleaner image.”

The team went on to confirm that the supernova was in fact a Type 1a – a particular class of exploded star whose light occurs in such a regular way that it is known as a “standard candle”.

Read more: BBC News – Supernova 'Mingus' could shed light on dark energy.

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