Stars are like everything else in the Universe (to quote E.B. White): we’re born, we live a little while, we die. The thing that people may not realize is this: stars have been doing this since before the Universe was visible! What do I mean by this? Take a look at this nebula, Barnard 68.
What’s going on here? This is what astronomers call “dust”, and what everyone else on Earth calls “neutral hydrogen atoms.” Yes, puny mammal, practically all of the atoms in space are ionized hydrogen, and this is a good thing. How does this happen? You form stars, and the high-energy light (Ultra-Violet and higher energy — i.e., above 13.6 eV) emitted by those stars ionizes whatever neutral atom it happens to run into. It took about the first billion years to completely ionize the Universe; before that, the Universe was opaque to light, with neutral atoms acting like dust.
As the Universe reionizes, it becomes easier to see the light from whatever objects are behind it.
So what happens if we’ve got a star or galaxy back from when before the Universe was 1 billion years old? (It’s 13.7 billion years old now.) Do we have any hope of seeing it? Well, they’d have to do something really extraordinary — to become so bright — in order to get through hundreds of millions of light years of dust. Well, what’s brighter than a galaxy? A supernova, of course. And what’s the brightest kind of supernova? A hypernova, particularly a hypernova that produces collimated jets. These produced the brightest object we’ve ever observed, a particular Gamma-Ray Burst.
Say hello to the youngest object ever discovered in the Universe (and click to enlarge), Gamma Ray Burst GRB 090423, born when the Universe was under 0.7 billion years old, and discovered just 5 days ago! This thing is so far away that no visible light actually got out; we only saw the X-rays from it! And yes, it shattered the other distance records. Take a look for a comparison:
My concluding remarks? Holy crap! That sucker is far, and very, very old. I’m sure this record will be broken someday, but how fortunate that we were watching at just the right time! I can’t hope to follow this up with anything better today, so just check out the new Carnival of Space: 100th edition to get your fix for space news!