Supernova UDS10Wil, which exploded more than 10 billion years ago, belongs to a special class called Type Ia supernovae, a kind of light beacon prized by astronomers because they provide a consistent level of brightness that can be used to measure the expansion of space, the space agency reported Thursday.
Although the newly discovered supernova is only 4 percent more distant than the previous record holder, it pushes roughly 350 million years farther back in time to a period when the universe was in its early formative years and stars were being born at a rapid rate, astronomers said.
"This new distance record holder opens a window into the early universe, offering important new insights into how these stars explode," astronomer David O. Jones of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore said.
Knowing what triggers Type Ia supernovae will provide evidence of how quickly the Universe enriched itself with heavier elements such as iron. These exploding stars produce about half of the iron in the universe, the raw material for building planets and life.
"We can test theories about how reliable these detonations are for understanding the evolution of the universe and its expansion," Jones said of the latest discovery.