Space Telescopes Observe Unprecedented Explosion

by Nancy Atkinson on April 7, 2011

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Images from Swift's Ultraviolet/Optical (white, purple) and X-ray telescopes (yellow and red) were combined in this view of GRB 110328A. The blast was detected only in X-rays, which were collected over a 3.4-hour period on March 28. Credit: NASA/Swift/Stefan Immler

From a NASA press release:

NASA’s Swift, Hubble Space Telescope and Chandra X-ray Observatory have teamed up to study one of the most puzzling cosmic blasts yet observed. More than a week later, high-energy radiation continues to brighten and fade from its location.

Astronomers say they have never seen anything this bright, long-lasting and variable before. Usually, gamma-ray bursts mark the destruction of a massive star, but flaring emission from these events never lasts more than a few hours.

Although research is ongoing, astronomers say that the unusual blast likely arose when a star wandered too close to its galaxy’s central black hole. Intense tidal forces tore the star apart, and the infalling gas continues to stream toward the hole. According to this model, the spinning black hole formed an outflowing jet along its rotational axis. A powerful blast of X- and gamma rays is seen if this jet is pointed in our direction.

On March 28, Swift’s Burst Alert Telescope discovered the source in the constellation Draco when it erupted with the first in a series of powerful X-ray blasts. The satellite determined a position for the explosion, now cataloged as gamma-ray burst (GRB) 110328A, and informed astronomers worldwide.

This is a visible-light image of GRB 110328A's host galaxy (arrow) taken on April 4 by the Hubble Space Telescope's Wide Field Camera 3. The galaxy is 3.8 billion light-years away. Credit: NASA/ESA/A. Fruchter (STScI)

As dozens of telescopes turned to study the spot, astronomers quickly noticed that a small, distant galaxy appeared very near the Swift position. A deep image taken by Hubble on April 4 pinpoints the source of the explosion at the center of this galaxy, which lies 3.8 billion light-years away.

That same day, astronomers used NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory to make a four-hour-long exposure of the puzzling source. The image, which locates the object 10 times more precisely than Swift can, shows that it lies at the center of the galaxy Hubble imaged.

“We know of objects in our own galaxy that can produce repeated bursts, but they are thousands to millions of times less powerful than the bursts we are seeing now. This is truly extraordinary,” said Andrew Fruchter at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore.

NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory completed this four-hour exposure of GRB 110328A on April 4. The center of the X-ray source corresponds to the very center of the host galaxy imaged by Hubble (red cross). Credit: NASA/CXC/ Warwick/A. Levan

“We have been eagerly awaiting the Hubble observation,” said Neil Gehrels, the lead scientist for Swift at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. “The fact that the explosion occurred in the center of a galaxy tells us it is most likely associated with a massive black hole. This solves a key question about the mysterious event.”

Most galaxies, including our own, contain central black holes with millions of times the sun’s mass; those in the largest galaxies can be a thousand times larger. The disrupted star probably succumbed to a black hole less massive than the Milky Way’s, which has a mass four million times that of our sun

Astronomers previously have detected stars disrupted by supermassive black holes, but none have shown the X-ray brightness and variability seen in GRB 110328A. The source has repeatedly flared. Since April 3, for example, it has brightened by more than five times.

Scientists think that the X-rays may be coming from matter moving near the speed of light in a particle jet that forms as the star’s gas falls toward the black hole.

“The best explanation at the moment is that we happen to be looking down the barrel of this jet,” said Andrew Levan at the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom, who led the Chandra observations. “When we look straight down these jets, a brightness boost lets us view details we might otherwise miss.”

This brightness increase, which is called relativistic beaming, occurs when matter moving close to the speed of light is viewed nearly head on.

Astronomers plan additional Hubble observations to see if the galaxy’s core changes brightness.

For more information see this NASA press release.

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.

iantresman April 9, 2011 at 8:55 PM

“You do mean that your intended posts are indeed mainstream astrophysics related expressions of a plasma like nature that you post as questions or post what you have observed in a lab, seen papers related to such, correct, do I have that right, is what you are saying and I am reading the same?”

My interest in plasma physics begun when someone recommend that I read Hannes Alfvén, so I read Cosmic Plasma, and then Cosmical Electrodynamics. However, it became apparent that he wasn’t appreciated by the astronomy community, and he was politely considered a maverick. I don’t consider his work to be infallible, but much is incorporated in standard mainstream astrophysics.

I don’t seek to enact change. As Max Planck said: “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it”.

DrFlimmer April 9, 2011 at 9:11 PM

@ Iantresman

Please, check this comment.

Alfvèn was a great scientist. No question about that. But his time was the 70ties and the 80ties. His ideas concerning some aspects of astrophysics and cosmology might have seem to be good ideas during his time. But it is only since the 90ties or even since “now” that we have telescopes in all wavelengths that we can draw better conclusions from the data. The error bars have shrunk a lot in the last decade.
And with this shrinking it became more and more obvious that some ideas fit data better than others. And some of Alfvèn’s ideas are among the latter. And right now, it seems unlikely that they make a comeback. And that is due to the shrunken error bars.

And btw: There are also other great scientists, like Alfvèn, with great ideas and big achievements on one side, but also with a record of failures on the other side. And that is only natural and human. Even Einstein erred. And I don’t refer to the Cosmological Constant, but to his resentments against Quantum Mechanics.

iantresman April 9, 2011 at 9:17 PM

Indeed, and thanks for that. My post was actually intended for Mr Mike’s below.

Hon. Salacious B. Crumb April 10, 2011 at 5:35 AM

EU/PC is mostly and effectively banned by the BAUT Forum, and the moderators actively will delete any such material. (This is the reason why these guys do not appear within the BAUT forum.)

Frankly, these EU/PC guys have a known agenda which is aimed to bring their unfounded and rejected ideas into the main stream. They are collectively using agreed ‘advertising’ methods in using sites like Universe Today. The same individual has been doing this for years and has met the same responses.

The first comment in this thread was mostly to create doubt and swing the conversation to their nonsensical theories instead of the main story. He will avoid any scrutiny and is not interested in being corrected but to highjack the story away from it.

When I asked about him being a chemist, knowing he had a chemistry background. That is why I said; “I hear you are a chemist, so I’d properly assume you know something about X-ray diffraction techniques that can be applied in chemistry for detecting atomic crystalline lattices by crystallography.

This individual never responded to the question, deliberately I fear. I asked about X-ray diffraction techniques because I thought he was thinking about the (GRB) 110328A source as being like a beam (the article refers to a relativistic beam.) Images produced by X-ray diffraction on materials look very much like the ray structure seen in the image, where the materials examined have an X-ray beam directed towards, which are scattered by the positions of atoms in the material. In turn, the examination of the pattern (it is actually (approximately) an electromagnetic interaction with the charges of protons and electrons within the atoms.)
Now anyone who has studied chemistry as a B.Sc. (Hons.) would have at least some idea of the use of X-ray diffraction of materials. [I did!].

What I don’t understand is there is no logical reason not to answer it. All I was questioning was the interpretation of the first comment, and his subsequent ones.

As to this statement;
“Still. It doesn’t let you get away with the deliberate statements to try and fool others to believe your EU/PC nonsense.
Also you said; “Diffraction patterns produced by an x-ray telescope, while they may superficially look like a rayed object, aren’t.”
Even I have shown you this was wrong, not just Don, here.”

Why did you delete this?

In fact the “Diffraction patterns produced by an x-ray telescope” are the source of the rays seen by the telescope, and are an artefact of the focussing of X-rays into an image. (They appear far more pronounced by the luminosity of the object and by the image being magnified to a field size of about 4 to 5 arcmin.)
The object imaged is from the distance a point source, whose central round disk is a product of the limited resolution of the X-ray telescope.

The central problem is understanding how a X-ray telescope works and produces images. Even basic astronomy knows the X-ray telescopes focus X-rays using multiple nested grazing incident mirrors. The outer rings are parabolic, the inner rings are hyperbolic. At the focus some 10 meters away, a system akin to a photoelectric system produces the image that is about half of a degree across. (The Chandra X-ray Observatory is exactly like this, though other X-ray telescopes do have slight different designs and sensitivities .)
The series of mirrors are from 0.6 to 1.2 metres in aperture.

The image presented in the lead of this story would normally look like a faint round star, but as the intensity increase of the source, so rays are produced. (Similar to what is seen through optical telescopes.) I suggest you read the NASA page; http://imagine.gsfc.nasa.gov/docs/science/how_l1/xray_detectors.html
Chandra X-ray Observatory [Much of this information is available on the NASA Chandra Site.]

Finally, if you must impose rules, why are you allowing nearly all those below? they too, defeat you comment rules, too?

Note: UT should really do a general story on X-ray telescopes.

Hon. Salacious B. Crumb April 10, 2011 at 5:37 AM

@ Jean Tate and Nancy Aitkinson
EU/PC is mostly and effectively banned by the BAUT Forum, and the moderators actively will delete any such material. (This is the reason why these guys do not appear within the BAUT forum.)

Frankly, these EU/PC guys have a known agenda which is aimed to bring their unfounded and rejected ideas into the main stream. They are collectively using agreed ‘advertising’ methods in using sites like Universe Today. The same individual has been doing this for years and has met the same responses.

The first comment in this thread was mostly to create doubt and swing the conversation to their nonsensical theories instead of the main story. He will avoid any scrutiny and is not interested in being corrected but to highjack the story away from it.

When I asked about him being a chemist, knowing he had a chemistry background. That is why I said; “I hear you are a chemist, so I’d properly assume you know something about X-ray diffraction techniques that can be applied in chemistry for detecting atomic crystalline lattices by crystallography.”

This individual never responded to the question, deliberately I fear. I asked about X-ray diffraction techniques because I thought he was thinking about the (GRB) 110328A source as being like a beam (the article refers to a relativistic beam.) Images produced by X-ray diffraction on materials look very much like the ray structure seen in the image, where the materials examined have an X-ray beam directed towards, which are scattered by the positions of atoms in the material. In turn, the examination of the pattern (it is actually (approximately) an electromagnetic interaction with the charges of protons and electrons within the atoms.)
Now anyone who has studied chemistry as a B.Sc. (Hons.) would have at least some idea of the use of X-ray diffraction of materials. [I did!].

What I don’t understand is there is no logical reason not to answer it. All I was questioning was the interpretation of the first comment, and his subsequent ones.

As to this statement;
“Still. It doesn’t let you get away with the deliberate statements to try and fool others to believe your EU/PC nonsense.
Also you said; “Diffraction patterns produced by an x-ray telescope, while they may superficially look like a rayed object, aren’t.”
Even I have shown you this was wrong, not just Don, here.

Why did you delete this?

In fact the “Diffraction patterns produced by an x-ray telescope” are the source of the rays seen by the telescope, and are an artefact of the focussing of X-rays into an image. (They appear far more pronounced by the luminosity of the object and by the image being magnified to a field size of about 4 to 5 arcmin.)
The object imaged is from the distance a point source, whose central round disk is a product of the limited resolution of the X-ray telescope.

The central problem is understanding how a X-ray telescope works and produces images. Even basic astronomy knows the X-ray telescopes focus X-rays using multiple nested grazing incident mirrors. The outer rings are parabolic, the inner rings are hyperbolic. At the focus some 10 meters away, a system akin to a photoelectric system produces the image that is about half of a degree across. (The Chandra X-ray Observatory is exactly like this, though other X-ray telescopes do have slight different designs and sensitivities .)
The series of mirrors are from 0.6 to 1.2 metres in aperture.

The image presented in the lead of this story would normally look like a faint round star, but as the intensity increase of the source, so rays are produced. (Similar to what is seen through optical telescopes.) I suggest you read the NASA page; http://imagine.gsfc.nasa.gov/docs/science/how_l1/xray_detectors.html
Chandra X-ray Observatory [Much of this information is available on the NASA Chandra Site.]

Finally, if you must impose rules, why are you allowing nearly all those below? they too, defeat you comment rules, too?

Note: UT should really do a general story on X-ray telescopes.

Hon. Salacious B. Crumb April 10, 2011 at 5:46 AM

@Jean
I posted a thread that has been moved to the centre of the text and not address your comment. Jean Tate April 9, 2011 at 3:12 pm

What is going on?

Jean Tate April 10, 2011 at 7:48 AM

HSBC asks: What’s going on?
(others have asked this too; why do replies appear in unexpected places?)

I don’t know. However, my hunch is that the comments that were removed have messed up the links that tie comments to their parents.

iantresman, something for you to think about: the spokes in the Swift image are ~an arcminute in size, and the time scale of the reported event is ~days. How close to us would the object causing this event be – approximately – to produce something an arcminute across in a week, even at highly relativistic speeds (or even as light, as in a light echo)? This is the sort of question I – and no doubt others – would think it entirely reasonable for someone with a science degree and a multi-year fascination with astronomy to have at least considered. Further, if you post a full reference to a technical paper that would seem to be completely irrelevant (per this simple calculation), do you appreciate why your comment might receive the hostile responses it did?

DrFlimmer April 10, 2011 at 9:00 AM

However, my hunch is that the comments that were removed have messed up the links that tie comments to their parents.

Probably, it would be more useful not to delete the entire post but to remove the text only with a message like: “conflict with comment policy: text deleted”. Then these problems could be avoided.

Jean Tate April 10, 2011 at 1:33 PM

DrFlimmer suggested: “it would be more useful not to delete the entire post but to remove the text only with a message like: “conflict with comment policy: text deleted”. Then these problems could be avoided.

That’s a good suggestion! I’ll keep that in mind (but hopefully I won’t need to remove any comments in future).

iantresman said: “I did not think that the spokes were jets that had formed in a week flat. I assumed that only the brightness of the source had changed.” If the source is ~<1 arcsec in apparent size, no matter how quickly – or by how much – it brightened, in a week, it could not produce extremely luminous spokes, could it? Unless the emission from the source was highly anisotropic, illuminating the spokes first (some time in the past), then beaming exactly in our direction, so the spokes and source became visible (to us) simultaneously (not a scenario consistent with the paper you cited, I imagine).

iantresman April 10, 2011 at 3:28 PM

@Jean Tate

If the spokes were not artifacts, but hidden jets, they are clearly too long to have been illuminated by the source in the available time. But they could have been illuminated in the past, not only by the central source, but they could also be self-illuminating. If the hypothetical jets were illuminated by the variable source, then one might expect the jet to have variable brightness along its length, if the resolution were available.

I had cited the paper (I can’t tell whether it has been removed, or is just not appearing), because it had mentioned (a) the “plasma-focus experiment, which reproduces some astrophysical phenomena”, (b) “filaments are observed in many astrophysical phenomena (by example [..] the Cat Eye nebula” (c) “several phenomena registered in plasma-focus discharges seem to be a reproduction of astrophysical observations”. (d) emission of hard and soft X-ray.

In the article, I felt that the spokes (mistaken as filaments) together with the jet, x-rays, and relativistic beams, together with the comments from the authors, were not completely irrelevant.

iantresman April 10, 2011 at 10:08 AM

@Jean Tate’s post.

A lightweek is 1.8E14m, so the distance to an object appearing an arcmin across would be 1.8E14/(tan (1/60/2))/2 = 6.2E17m (~65 lightyears), compared to the galaxy being 3.8E9 lightyears away.

This back of an envelope calculation is all well and good, but I did not think that the spokes were jets that had formed in a week flat. I assumed that only the brightness of the source had changed.

“do you appreciate why your comment might receive the hostile responses it did?”

No. There is no excuse for this kind of behaviour. It looks bad on Universe Today, and it looks bad on science.

Hon. Salacious B. Crumb April 10, 2011 at 12:19 PM

Oh… but it justifiably murders all the pseudoscience and the mumbo-jumbo. Quite simply. Act honestly and you haven’t a worry in the world. Act dishonestly and you get exactly what you give out.
As for “This back of an envelope calculation is all well and good, but I did not think that the spokes were jets that had formed in a week flat. I assumed that only the brightness of the source had changed.”
Then why didn’t you say that in the first place?
Also the very first post of yours points out the shape of the rays and then directly refers to an IEEE paper. Jon Hanford then said “…but I think the ray-like structures in the top image are instrumental artifacts from the imager.” and you replied; “That was my first thought, except that in the article, Andrew Levan at the University of Warwick said that “The best explanation at the moment is that we happen to be looking down the barrel of this jet”.”
Therefore, we can only conclude that you thought that the jet included the spokes. Logic says that you “I did not think that the spokes were jets…” is therefore false. (No one with a university education in science would likely make such a simple mistake.)
Bottom line : You were hoping in all hope that this might be direct evidence of some known plasma universe or plasma physics phenomena. It is not, nor is there any supporting for it. Even the NASA scientists say “…one of the most puzzling cosmic blasts yet observed.” We can only deduce things from the available observation of the phenomena.
If that is so, then and they are unsure, then how do you have the means or capability to claim otherwise?
It’s just wild speculation on you behalf and just personal theory — and that right or wrong is against the UT rules.
Finally, you may be interested in plasma physics, you may even know more than most of us, but if you must argue that it is a known and established plasma physics then make sure the observational evidence and the theory behind it is damn well overwhelming in regards its explanation of the phenomena. (Saying something in a plasma physics experiment that is observed on Earth explains some distant astronomical or astrophysical is quite untenable if no observed data supports it. As we have said to you again and again; just because it might look like something doesn’t mean that IS that phenomena. It could be something quite different. I.e. A Dense Plasma Focus, when it could look like a X-ray diffraction image, an artificial artefact, or even none of the above explanations.
[I read not once but twice for beginning to end the Milanese, M.M.; et al, article. It had some interesting ideas on aurorae, but it had nothing to do with this story at all. It also had absolutely nothing to do with the Glowing Eye Nebula nebulae and the Cartwheel Nebula.]

Now. Let’s end this useless bitterness and get on to the next story. In future, if you must come up with these alternative theories do so from the standard theory and not something plucked from the air. If you don’t know ask, as there are a dozen posters here that know far better than you or me.

[If it makes you happy, I'll unreservedly withdraw my accusations that you either lied or acted as a con artist. All I ask in return is you act upfront and honestly, and you'll have no real problems with me! That's the best i can do.]

iantresman April 10, 2011 at 12:38 PM

@HSBC “I’ll unreservedly withdraw my accusations that you either lied or acted as a con artist”

Thank you. I never try to be anything less than upfront and honest, not to be confused with misunderstanding and inaccuracies which are quite different.

I hope you will consider the same, and not lump all plasma physics under the umbrella of the “plasma universe”, as there is overlap.

Hon. Salacious B. Crumb April 10, 2011 at 12:39 PM

Agreed.

Hon. Salacious B. Crumb April 10, 2011 at 12:29 PM

It was looking at some of the other articles published on this story today, and it dawned on me is it at all possible this object might be an inactive or semi-active quasar or one just to turn turned on?

Quasars have the noted properties of being variable in brightness and expel prodigious energies from their centres. They also are likely attached to the centre of galaxies and lie from us around the same extragalactic distances. The closest, is 3C 273 that lies 2.44 billion light years away. The furthest is 28 billion light years away. About a quarter of a million are known. Many are also known X-ray sources.

Torbjorn Larsson OM April 10, 2011 at 4:05 PM

Oh, I think my joke disappeared. Good, it was a poor one. :-)

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