The ultimate fate of the Universe, infinite expansion or a big crunch, can be determined by using the redshifts and distances of very distant supernovae to monitor changes in the expansion rate. We can now find large numbers of these distant supernovae, and measure their redshifts and apparent brightnesses; moreover, recent studies of nearby type Ia supernovae have shown how to determine their intrinsic luminosities- and therefore with their apparent brightnesses obtain their distances. The >50 distant supernovae discovered so far provide a record of changes in the expansion rate over the past several billion years. However, it is necessary to extend this expansion history still farther away (hence further back in time) in order to begin to distinguish the causes of he expansion-rate changes-such as the slowing caused by the gravitational attraction of the Universe's mass density, and the possibly counteracting effect of the cosmological constant. Here we report the most distant spectroscopically confirmed supernova. Spectra and photometry from the largest telescopes on the ground and in space show that this ancient supernova is strikingly similar to nearby, recent type Ia supernovae. When combined with previous measurements of nearer supernovae, these new measurements suggest that we may live in a low-mass-density universe.