The first stars are so distant and formed so long ago that they are invisible to our best telescopes.

Until they explode. Hypernovas (more powerful cousins of supernovas) and their associated gamma-ray bursts offer astronomers the possibility of detecting light from the first generations of stars.

NASA’s Swift satellite already has seen a gamma-ray burst (GRB) with a redshift of 6.29, meaning that the progenitor star exploded about 13 billion years ago, when the universe was less than a billion years old. Theorists Volker Bromm (University of Texas at Austin) and Avi Loeb (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics) predict that one-tenth of the blasts Swift will spot during its operational lifetime will come from stars at a redshift of 5 or greater, that lived and died during the first billion years of the universe.

“Most of those GRBs will come from second generation or later stars,” said Loeb. “But if we get lucky, Swift may even detect a burst from one of the very first stars that formed — a star made of only hydrogen and helium.”

Calculations suggest that such stars, which are called Population III for historical reasons, would have been behemoths weighing 50-500 times as much as the Sun. A Population III star would have gulped its nuclear fuel faster than an SUV, dying quickly and explosively.

“Our best guess right now is that the recent GRB was not from a Pop III star. However, its redshift is high enough to make it very interesting,” said Bromm.