A record-breaking gamma ray burst was observed yesterday (March 19th) by NASA’s Swift satellite. After red-shift observations were analysed, astronomers realized they were looking at an explosion half-way across the Universe, some 7.5 billion light years away. This means that the burst occurred 7.5 billion years ago, when the Universe was only half the age it is now. This shatters the record for the most distant object that can be seen with the naked eye…
Gamma ray bursts (GRBs) are the most powerful explosions observed in the Universe, and the most powerful explosions to occur since the Big Bang. A GRB is generated during the collapse of a massive star into a black hole or neutron star. The physics behind a GRB is highly complex, but the most accepted model is that as a massive star collapses to form a black hole, the in falling material is energetically converted into a blast of high energy radiation. It is thought the burst is highly collimated from the poles of the collapsing star. Any local matter downstream of the burst will be vaporized. This has led to the thought that historic terrestrial extinctions over the last hundreds of millions of years could be down to the Earth being irradiated by gamma radiation from such a blast within the Milky Way. But for now, all GRBs are observed outside our galaxy, out of harms way.
This record-breaking GRB was observed by the Swift observatory (launched into Earth orbit in 2004) which surveys the sky for GRBs. Using its Burst Alert Telescope (BAT), the initiation of an event can be relayed to Earth within 20 seconds. Once located, the spacecraft turns all its instruments toward the burst to measure the spectrum of light emitted from the afterglow. This observatory is being used to understand how GRBs are initiated and how the hot gas and dust surrounding the event evolves.
“This burst was a whopper; it blows away every gamma ray burst we’ve seen so far.” – Neil Gehrels, Swift principal investigator, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.
This particular GRB was observed in the constellation of BoÃ¶tes at 2:12 a.m. (EDT), March 19th. Telescopes on the ground and in space quickly turned to BoÃ¶tes to analyse the afterglow of the burst. Later in the day, the Very Large Telescope in Chile and the Hobby-Eberly Telescope in Texas measured the burst’s redshift at 0.94. From this measure, scientists were able to pinpoint our distance from the explosion. This red shift corresponds to a distance of 7.5 billion light years, signifying that this huge GRB happened 7.5 billion years ago, over half the distance across the observable universe.