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Swift Briefly Blinded by Mega X-ray Blast

The brightest gamma-ray burst ever seen in X-rays temporarily blinded Swift's X-ray Telescope on 21 June 2010. This image merges the X-rays (red to yellow) with the same view from Swift's Ultraviolet/Optical Telescope, which showed nothing extraordinary. (The image is 5 arcminutes across.) Credit: NASA/Swift/Stefan Immler

A record-breaking gamma ray burst from beyond the Milky Way temporarily blinded the X-ray eye on NASA’s Swift space observatory on June 21, 2010. The X-rays traveled through space for 5-billion years before slamming into and overwhelming the space-based telescope. “This gamma-ray burst is by far the brightest light source ever seen in X-ray wavelengths at cosmological distances,” said David Burrows, senior scientist and professor of astronomy and astrophysics at Penn State University and the lead scientist for Swift’s X-ray Telescope (XRT).

A gamma-ray burst is a violent eruption of energy from the explosion of a massive star morphing into a new black hole. This mega burst, named GRB 100621A, is the brightest X-ray source that Swift has detected since the observatory began X-ray observation in early 2005.

Although Swift satellite was designed specifically to study gamma-ray bursts, the instrument was not designed to handle an X-ray blast this bright. “The intensity of these X-rays was unexpected and unprecedented” said Neil Gehrels, Swift’s principal investigator at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. “Just when we were beginning to think that we had seen everything that gamma-ray bursts could throw at us, this burst came along to challenge our assumptions about how powerful their X-ray emissions can be.”.

For more information on this burst, see this press release from Penn State’s Eberly College of Science.


Nancy Atkinson is currently Universe Today's Contributing Editor. Previously she served as UT's Senior Editor and lead writer, and has worked with Astronomy Cast and 365 Days of Astronomy. Nancy is also a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • DrFlimmer July 16, 2010, 6:25 AM

    @ Matt Mazur

    This was definitely a directed blast, which is normally referred to as a jet. We deal with energies here, which would be far too high to be spherical blast.
    That’s why science came up with collimated jets in the first place. We observed GRBs and were surprised by the unimaginably high energies involved. So the idea was presented that most of the energy of the explosion is beamed in two narrow jets. The physics is not entirely clear, btw, and is an active field of research.

  • Lawrence B. Crowell July 17, 2010, 4:17 AM

    The directed blast appears to be some sort of P-wave, if we think of Legendre polynomials and its use in atomic shell structure. It would be my physical sense this occurs along the axis of rotation of the star. The cylidrical symmetry of the interior might then be what set up this dipole structure.


  • jimhenson July 18, 2010, 6:25 PM

    Known supernovas of 1006 and 1054 left nitrates discovered in 2009 in antartica (north polar) ice caps at corresponding depths. Nitrogen oxides created by gamma rays can be tracked only up to 2,000 years on earth. Iron-60 isotope ejected by supernovas is found in deep ocean rock strata, that dates the last 13 million years inside the top 2 cm surface crust. There is a 37 million year extinction history on earth that is still unexplainable. Perhaps the most common objects, brown dwarfs and low mass red dwarf stars, have orbiting planets with a weak solar system magnetic field that increases exposure for life to lethal supernova radiation. Our sun is not so rare but far more massive then most stars, which could have helped shield our solar system from total extinctions?

  • RUF July 20, 2010, 12:03 PM

    Great thread.

    Super information.

    Thank you, all!

  • jimhenson July 23, 2010, 9:39 AM

    huge Carbon 14 increases in cave stalagmites that grew between 11,000 – 45,000 years ago were likely from the Geminga supernova forming the little bubble when it was 300 LY away says Beck and Richards. Aligned GRB’s are calculated every 100 million years to hit a liveable planet in the galaxy. earth extremely unlikely for us to be unexpectedly hit at light speed from a thousand year or less past supernova event. it would cause a startling sudden discovery by luminoisity like when SN1993J far away was discovered. Known potentially dangerous massive supernova stars are not aligned for instant GRB death. The crab nebula exploded 7,500 years ago, and is 6,500 LY away, and was discovered in 1054. Shock waves from supernovas, not black holes, are the primary source of cosmic rays. The Geminga supernova happened 340,000 years ago, but the shock waves didn’t reach earth until 35,000 years ago when C14 stalagmite levels indicated cosmic rays bombarded earth.