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Astronomers catch one of universe's most powerful explosions, 10 billion years later

A short gamma ray burst brighter than a million trillion suns lit up space for a few hours and then hit the road for eons to reach us.

The afterglow of SGRB181123B, captured by the Gemini North telescope. The afterglow is marked with a circle.
International Gemini Observatory/NOIRLab/NSF/AURA/K. Paterson & W. Fong/Travis Rector/Mahdi Zamani & Davide de Martin

Astronomers have spotted one of the most powerful types of explosions known, and at an incredible distance. The scientists used the Gemini-North Telescope atop Mauna Kea in Hawaii to see the afterglow of a short gamma ray burst located on the other side of the universe, an astounding 10 billion light-years away.

"We certainly did not expect to discover a distant SGRB, as they are extremely rare and very faint," Northwestern University astrophysicist Wen-fai Fong, said in a release. 

Fong is a senior author on a paper detailing the discovery published Tuesday in the Astrophysical Journal Letters.

SGRBs are thought to occur when two neutron stars smash into each other, and the resulting afterglow seen at a cosmic distance can be fast and fleeting, making it especially remarkable to catch one so far away. The light astronomers saw likely lasted only mere hours and then spent 10 billion years traveling in our direction to finally reach the mirrors of telescopes on Earth. 

That means the explosion observed actually occurred when the universe was in its adolescence, less than 4 billion years after the Big Bang. 

The researchers believe the powerful burst -- gamma rays are the most energetic form of light, and SGRBs can be a million trillion times brighter than the sun --  known as SGRB181123B is the most distant SGRB with an optical afterglow ever recorded.

Getting to observe it was a combination of luck and quick action. The far-off fireworks were first identified by NASA's Neil Gehrels Swift Observatory on Thanksgiving night of 2018. Within hours the team remotely accessed the Gemini telescope in Hawaii. More follow-up observations from Chile and Arizona helped fill out the picture of the burst and where it originated. 

"With SGRBs, you won't detect anything if you get to the sky too late," Fong explained. "But every once in a while, if you react quickly enough, you will land on a really beautiful detection like this." 

Aside from being impressively powerful and distant, the discovery provides a window onto a busy time when stars and galaxies were forming rapidly in the young universe.

"It's long been unknown how long neutron stars — in particular those that produce SGRBs — take to merge," Fong said. "Finding an SGRB at this point in the universe's history suggests that, at a time when the universe was forming lots of stars, the neutron star pair may have merged fairly rapidly."

The hope is that this won't be the first lucky detection of a tantrum from a time when the universe was going through some very tumultuous growing pains. 

"We believe we are uncovering the tip of the iceberg in terms of distant SGRBs," said Kerry Paterson, the study's first author. "That motivates us to further study past events and intensely examine future ones."