Possible Gamma Ray Burst Detected in Andromeda, Would be Closest Ever Observed

by Nancy Atkinson on May 28, 2014

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Raw data showing the raw gamma ray light curve from a possible Gamma Ray Burst in M31 on May 27, 2014 obtained by the Swift Burst Alert Telescope. Credit: Goddard Space Flight Center/NASA

Raw data showing the raw gamma ray light curve from a possible Gamma Ray Burst in M31 on May 27, 2014 obtained by the Swift Burst Alert Telescope. Credit: Goddard Space Flight Center/NASA

Update (5/28/14 9:20 am EDT): This alert may have been a false alarm. Further analysis showed the initial brightness was overestimated by a factor of 300. An official circular from the Swift-XRT team says “therefore do not believe this source to be in outburst. Instead, it was a serendipitous constant source in the field of view of a BAT subthreshold trigger.” Please read our subsequent article here that provides further information and analysis.

Something went boom in the Andromeda Galaxy, our next door neighbor. The Swift Gamma-Ray Burst telescope detected a sudden bright emission of gamma rays. Astronomers aren’t sure yet if it was a Gamma-Ray Burst (GRB) or an Ultraluminous X-Ray (ULX) or even an outburst from a low-mass x-ray binary (LMXB), but whatever it turns out to be, it will be the closest event of this kind that we’ve ever observed.

One of the previous closest GRBs was 2.6 billion light-years away, while Andromeda is a mere 2.5 million light years away from Earth. Even though this would be the closest burst to Earth, there is no danger of our planet getting fried by gamma rays.

According to astronomer (Bad Astronomer!) Phil Plait, a GRB would have to be less than 8,000 light years away cause any problems for us.

Andromeda Galaxy. Credit: NASA

Andromeda Galaxy. Credit: NASA

This event is providing astronomers with a rare opportunity to gain information vital to understanding powerful cosmic explosions like this.

If it is a GRB, it likely came from a collision of neutron stars. If it is a ULX, the blast came from a black hole consuming gas. If the outburst was from a LMXB, a black hole or neutron star annihilated its companion star.
Astronomers should be able to determine the pedigree of this blast within 24-48 hours by watching the way the light fades from the burst.

How this Blast was Detected

The Swift Burst Alert telescope watches the sky for gamma-ray bursts and, within seconds of detecting a burst Swift relays the location of the burst to ground stations, allowing both ground-based and space-based telescopes around the world the opportunity to observe the burst’s afterglow. As soon as it can, Swift will swiftly shift itself to observe the burst with its X-ray and ultraviolet telescopes.

The burst alert came at 21:21 pm Universal time on May 27, 2014; three minutes later, the X-ray telescope aboard Swift was observing a bright X-ray glow.

News of the event quickly spread across the astronomical community and on Twitter, sending astronomers scrambling for their telescopes.

According to astronomer Katie Mack on Twitter, if this is indeed a GRB, this gamma-ray burst looks like a short GRB.

No two GRBs are the same, but they are usually classified as either long or short depending on the burst’s duration. Long bursts are more common and last for between 2 seconds and several minutes; short bursts last less than 2 seconds, meaning the action can all be over in just milliseconds.

As we noted earlier, more should be known about this blast within a day or so and we’ll keep you posted. In the meantime, you can follow the hashtag #GRBM31 on Twitter to see the latest. Katie Mack or Robert Rutledge (Astronomer’s Telegram) have been tweeting pertinent info about the burst.

About 

Nancy Atkinson is Universe Today's Senior Editor. She also works with Astronomy Cast, and is a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.

mewo May 28, 2014 at 7:05 AM

Have they considered the possibility that this event is in the same line of sight as Andromeda, but considerably more distant?

FarAwayLongAgo May 28, 2014 at 8:03 AM

Or nearer…
Nah, if they can pinpoint it to that little spot in the sky where the Andromeda is, which I think is difficult for gamma rays, then probabilities are convincing that it is related.

astrotter May 28, 2014 at 8:57 AM

The initial Swift BAT detection announcement of the prompt gamma-ray burst itself said “There is a 0.03% probability that this would happen by chance coincidence”. Not impossible, but unlikely. However, at first, they thought the GRB might have had an X-ray afterglow, and it turned out what they saw was a coincidental steady X-ray source nearby (but also in M31): http://gcn.gsfc.nasa.gov/gcn3/16336.gcn3
So confusion can happen! M31 covers several square degrees on the sky, after all.

Brian Koberlein May 28, 2014 at 9:22 AM

Turns out is was a known x-ray source.

jc hanford May 28, 2014 at 10:48 AM

Saw this summary of the nonevent in M 31 by Swift scientist Phil Evans: http://www.star.le.ac.uk/~pae9/twitter/GRBM31.html

Would have been cool if this was the real deal though.

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