Update: Possible ‘Nearby’ Gamma Ray Burst Alert Was False Alarm

by Nancy Atkinson on May 28, 2014

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Color view of M31 (The Andromeda Galaxy). Credit and copyright: Terry Hancock.

Color view of M31 (The Andromeda Galaxy). Credit and copyright: Terry Hancock.

Following the late night news yesterday of a possible gamma ray burst in our next door neighboring galaxy Andromeda, it was an “Oh darn!” moment this morning to find out the big event was likely a false alarm. The false alert — and the ensuing false excitement — was due to an unlikely combination of Swift’s Burst Alert Telescope (BAT) detecting what was a previously known object and a power outage at Goddard Space Flight Center and Swift Data Center, so that the data couldn’t be analyzed by the regular team of astronomers around the world.

Also, according to a blog post by Phil Evans, a post-doctoral research assistant from the University of Leicester and a member of the support team for Swift, the Swift team never actually announced a claim of such an event, and it turns out that the tentative data that triggered this story was overstated.

“Interestingly, the Swift team never claimed it was [a GRB]; indeed, I haven’t seen any professional communication claiming that this was a GRB,” Evans wrote on his blog. “Why it has been reported throughout the web as a GRB is something I can only speculate on, but Swift has been fabulously successful studying GRBs.”

Definitely read Evans’ entire analysis of the event.

A circular posted from the Swift-XRT team” on NASA’s Gamma-ray Coordinates Network (GCN) system at says that the astronomers “do not believe this source to be in outburst”. On the Nature blog, Alexandra Witze spoke with Swift team member Kim Page, also from the University of Leicester, who told Nature “that the source had been initially mistaken for a new outburst, and that its intensity had been overestimated due to measurement error. Instead, she says, it was a relatively common, persistent x-ray source — possibly a globular cluster — that had previously been catalogued.”

Here’s the circular in its entirety:

We have re-analysed the prompt XRT data on Swift trigger 600114 (GCN Circ.
16332), taking advantage of the event data.

The initial count rate given in GCN Circ. 16332 was based on raw data from
the full field of view, without X-ray event detection, and therefore may
have been affected by other sources in M31, as well as background hot
pixels. Analysis of the event data (not fully available at the time of the
initial circular) shows the count rate of the X-ray source identified in
GCN Circ. 16332 to have been 0.065 +/- 0.012 count s^-1, consistent with
the previous observations of this source [see the 1SXPS catalogue (Evans
et al. 2014): http://www.swift.ac.uk/1SXPS/1SXPS%20J004143.1%2B413420].

We 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.

This circular is an official product of the Swift-XRT team.

The event caused a tweet-storm last night on Twitter (see #GRBM31) and as many have said, the excitement was magnified because of the ability to spread news quickly via social media:

Astronomer Robert Rutledge, who publishes the Astronomer’s Telegram has given a Tweet-by-Tweet analysis of what happened with the false alarm:

About 

Nancy Atkinson is Universe Today's Senior Editor. She also is the host of the NASA Lunar Science Institute podcast and works with Astronomy Cast. Nancy is also a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.

jc hanford May 28, 2014 at 3:07 PM

Thanks for the update and links Nancy. Somewhat unfortunate that Swinburne University has released a press release announcing a “cosmic event” in Andromeda; the story has been picked up by PhysOrg: http://phys.org/news/2014-05-cosmic-explosion-neighbouring-galaxy.html#firstCmt

Stuff like this just leads to confusion by the general public. And thanks again for being on top of the story with the latest developments.

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