The collapse of very massive stars can produce violent explosions, accompanied by strong bursts of gamma-ray light, which are some of the brightest events in the universe. Typical gamma-ray bursts emit photons with energies between 10 kiloelectron volts and about 1 megaelectron volt. Photons with energies above megaelectron volts have been seen in some very rare occasions but the distances to their sources were not known. An international research consortium is reporting in this week’s issue of the journal Science Express that the Fermi Gamma-Ray Space Telescope has detected photons with energies between 8 kiloelectron volts and 13 gigaelectron volts arriving from the gamma-ray burst 080916C.
The explosion, designated GRB 080916C, occurred just after midnight GMT on September 16 (7:13 p.m. on the 15th in the eastern US). Two of Fermi’s science instruments — the Large Area Telescope and the Gamma-ray Burst Monitor — simultaneously recorded the event. Together, the two instruments provide a view of the blast’s gamma-ray emission from energies ranging from 3,000 to more than 5 billion times that of visible light.
A team led by Jochen Greiner at the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Garching, Germany, established that the blast occurred 12.2 billion light-years away using the Gamma-Ray Burst Optical/Near-Infrared Detector (GROND) on the 2.2-meter (7.2-foot) telescope at the European Southern Observatory in La Silla, Chile.
“Already, this was an exciting burst,” says Julie McEnery, a Fermi deputy project scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “But with the GROND team’s distance, it went from exciting to extraordinary.”
Astronomers believe most gamma-ray explosions occur when exotic massive stars run out of nuclear fuel. As a star’s core collapses into a black hole, jets of material — powered by processes not yet fully understood — blast outward at nearly the speed of light. The jets bore all the way through the collapsing star and continue into space, where they interact with gas previously shed by the star. This generates bright afterglows that fade with time.
The burst is not only spectacular but also enigmatic: a curious time delay separates its highest-energy emissions from its lowest. Such a time lag has been seen clearly in only one earlier burst, and researchers have several explanations for why it may exist. It is possible that the delays could be explained by the structure of this environment, with the low- and high-energy gamma rays “coming from different parts of the jet or created through a different mechanism,” said Large Area Telescope Principal Investigator Peter Michelson, a Stanford University physics professor affiliated with the Department of Energy.
Another, far more speculative theory suggests that perhaps time lags result not from anything in the environment around the black hole, but from the gamma rays’ long journey from the black hole to our telescopes. If the theorized idea of quantum gravity is correct, then at its smallest scale space is not a smooth medium but a tumultuous, boiling froth of “quantum foam.” Lower-energy (and thus lighter) gamma rays would travel faster through this foam than higher-energy (and thus heavier) gamma rays. Over the course of 12.2 billion light years, this very small effect could add up to a significant delay.
The Fermi results provide the strongest test to date of the speed of light’s consistency at these extreme energies. As Fermi observes more gamma-ray bursts, researchers can look for time lags that vary with respect to the bursts. If the quantum gravity effect is present, time lags should vary in relation to the distance. If the environment around the burst origin is the cause, the lag should stay relatively constant no matter how far away the burst occurred.
“This one burst raises all sorts of questions,” Michelson says. “In a few years, we’ll have a fairly good sample of bursts, and may have some answers.”