Astronomers Locate the Source of High-Energy Cosmic Rays

Roughly a century ago, scientists began to realize that some of the radiation we detect in Earth’s atmosphere is not local in origin. This eventually gave rise to the discovery of cosmic rays, high-energy protons and atomic nuclei that have been stripped of their electrons and accelerated to relativistic speeds (close to the speed of light). However, there are still several mysteries surrounding this strange (and potentially lethal) phenomenon.

This includes questions about their origins and how the main component of cosmic rays (protons) are accelerated to such high velocity. Thanks to new research led by the University of Nagoya, scientists have quantified the amount of cosmic rays produced in a supernova remnant for the first time. This research has helped resolve a 100-year mystery and is a major step towards determining precisely where cosmic rays come from.

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New Simulation Shows Exactly What’s Happening as Neutron Stars Merge

Neutron stars are the remnants of massive stars that explode as supernovae at the end of their fusion lives. They’re super-dense cores where all of the protons and electrons are crushed into neutrons by the overpowering gravity of the dead star. They’re the smallest and densest stellar objects, except for black holes, and possibly other arcane, hypothetical objects like quark stars.

When two neutron stars merge, we can detect the resulting gravitational waves. But some aspects of these mergers are poorly-understood. One question surrounds short-lived gamma-ray bursts from these mergers. Previous studies have shown that these bursts may come from the decay of heavy elements produced in a neutron star merger.

A new study strengthens our understanding of these complex mergers and introduces a model that explains the gamma rays.

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It Takes Two Stars to Make a Gamma Ray Burst

In 1967, NASA scientists noticed something they had never seen before coming from deep space. In what has come to be known as the “Vela Incident“, multiple satellites registered a Gamma-Ray Burst (GRB) that was so bright, it briefly outshined the entire galaxy. Given their awesome power and the short-lived nature, astronomers have been eager to determine how and why these bursts take place.

Decades of observation have led to the conclusion that these explosions occur when a massive star goes supernova, but astronomers were still unsure why it happened in some cases and not others. Thanks to new research by a team from the University of Warwick, it appears that the key to producing GRBs lies with binary star systems – i.e. a star needs a companion in order to produce the brightest explosion in the Universe.

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Hubble Observes the Most Powerful Gamma Ray Burst Ever Detected

Gamma-ray bursts (GRBs) are one of the most energetic phenomena in the Universe, and also one of the least researched. These explosions of energy occur when a massive star goes supernova and emits twin beams of gamma rays that can be seen billions of light-years away. Because they are closely tied with the formation of black holes, scientists have been eager to study this rare occurrence in greater detail.

Unfortunately, few opportunities for this have occurred since GRBs are very short-lived (lasting for just seconds) and most have happened in distant galaxies. But thanks to the efforts using a suite of telescopes, astronomers were able to spot a GRB (designated GRB 190114C) back in January of 2019. Some of the radiation from this GRB was the highest energy ever observed, making this a milestone in the history of astronomy.

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Hubble Has Looked at the 2017 Kilonova Explosion Almost a Dozen Times, Watching it Slowly Fade Away

In 2017, LIGO (Laser-Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory) and Virgo detected gravitational waves coming from the merger of two neutron stars. They named that signal GW170817. Two seconds after detecting it, NASA’s Fermi satellite detected a gamma ray burst (GRB) that was named GRB170817A. Within minutes, telescopes and observatories around the world honed in on the event.

The Hubble Space Telescope played a role in this historic detection of two neutron stars merging. Starting in December 2017, Hubble detected the visible light from this merger, and in the next year and a half it turned its powerful mirror on the same location over 10 times. The result?

The deepest image of the afterglow of this event, and one chock-full of scientific detail.

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Massive Triple Star System Creates this Bizarre Swirling Pinwheel of Dust. And it Could be the Site of a Gamma Ray Burst

When stars reach the end of their lifespan, many undergo gravitational collapse and explode into a supernova, In some cases, they collapse to become black holes and release a tremendous amount of energy in a short amount of time. These are what is known as gamma-ray bursts (GRBs), and they are one of the most powerful events in the known Universe.

Recently, an international team of astronomers was able to capture an image  of a newly-discovered triple star system surrounded by a “pinwheel” of dust. This system, nicknamed “Apep”, is located roughly 8,000 light years from Earth and destined to become a long-duration GRB. In addition, it is the first of its kind to be discovered in our galaxy.

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Did a Gamma Ray Burst Accompany LIGO’s Gravity Wave Detection?

An artist's impression of a Gamma Ray Burst. Credit: Stanford.edu

Last week’s announcement that Gravitational Waves (GW) have been detected for the first time—as a result of the merger of two black holes—is huge news. But now a Gamma Ray Burst (GRB) originating from the same place, and that arrived at Earth 0.4 seconds after the GW, is making news. Isolated black holes aren’t supposed to create GRB’s; they need to be near a large amount of matter to do that.

NASA’s Fermi telescope detected the GRB, coming from the same point as the GW, a mere 0.4 seconds after the waves arrived. Though we can’t be absolutely certain that the two phenomena are from the same black hole merger, the Fermi team calculates the odds of that being a coincidence at only 0.0022%. That’s a pretty solid correlation.

So what’s going on here? To back up a little, let’s look at what we thought was happening when LIGO detected gravitational waves.

Our understanding was that the two black holes orbited each other for a long time. As they did so, their massive gravity would have cleared the area around them of matter. By they time they finished circling each other and merged, they would have been isolated in space. But now that a GRB has been detected, we need some way to account for it. We need more matter to be present.

According to Abraham Loeb, of Harvard University, the missing piece of this puzzle is a massive star—itself the result of a binary star system combining into one—a few hundred times larger than the Sun, that spawned two black holes. A star this size would form a black hole when it exhausted its fuel and collapsed. But why would there be two black holes?

Again, according to Loeb, if the star was rotating at a high enough rate—just below its break up frequency—the star could actually form two collapsing cores in a dumbbell configuration, and hence two black holes. But now these two black holes would not be isolated in space, they would actually be inside a massive star. Or what was left of one. The remnants of the massive star is the missing matter.

When the black holes joined together, an outflow would be generated, which would produce the GRB.  Or else the GRB came “from a jet originating out of the accretion disk of residual debris around the BH remnant,” according to Loeb’s paper. So why the 0.4 s delay? This is the time it took the GRB to cross the star, relative to the gravitational waves.

It sounds like a nice tidy explanation. But, as Loeb notes, there are some problems with it. The main question is, why was the GRB so weak, or dim? Loeb’s paper says that “observed GRB may be just one spike in a longer and weaker transient below the GBM detection threshold.”

But was the GRB really weak? Or was it even real? The European Space Agency has their own gamma ray detecting spacecraft, called Integral. Integral was not able to confirm the GRB signal, and according to this paper, the gamma ray signal was not real after all.

As they say in show business, “Stay tuned.”

 

 

 

Remembering the Vela Incident

36 years ago today, a strange event was detected over the Southern Indian Ocean that remains controversial. On September 22nd, 1979, an American Vela Hotel satellite detected an atmospheric explosion over the southern Indian Ocean near the Prince Edward Islands. The event occurred at 00:53 Universal Time on the pre-dawn nighttime side of the Earth. Vela’s gamma-ray and x-ray detectors rang out in surprise, along with its two radiometers (known as Bhangmeters) which also captured the event.

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The approximate location of the flash seen by the Vela-5b satellite Image credit: Wikimedia Commons/public domain

What was it?

Even today, the source of the Vela Incident remains a mystery. Designed to detect nuclear detonations worldwide and enforce the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, the Vela satellites operated for about ten years and were also famous for discovering evidence for extra-galactic gamma-ray bursts.

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A Vela payload in the lab. Image credit: The U.S. Department of Defense

Vela-5B was the spacecraft from the series that detected the mysterious flash. A Titan-3C rocket launched Vela 5B (NORAD ID 1969-046E) on May 23rd, 1969 from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

One of the first things scientists realized early on in the Cold War is that the Universe is a noisy place, and that this extends across the electromagnetic spectrum. Meteors, lightning, cosmic rays and even distant astrophysical sources can seem to mimic certain signature aspects of nuclear detonations. The ability to discern the difference between human-made and natural events became of paramount importance and remains so to this day: the hypothetical scenario of a Chelyabinsk-style event over two nuclear armed states already on a political hair-trigger edge is a case in point.

Over the years, the prime suspect for the Vela Incident has been a joint South African-Israeli nuclear test. The chief piece of evidence is the characteristic ‘double-flash’ recorded by Vela, characteristic of a nuclear detonation. Said event would’ve been an approximately 3 kiloton explosion; for context, the bomb dropped on Hiroshima had a 15 kiloton yield, and the Chelyabinsk event had an estimated equivalent explosive force of 500 kilotons. As a matter of fact, the Vela Incident became a topic of discussion on the day Chelyabinsk occurred, as we sought to verify the assertion of whether Chelyabinsk was ‘the biggest thing’ since the 1908 Tunguska event.

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A bolide event captured over Pennsylvania in early 2015. Image credit: Bill Ingalls/NASA

The Carter administration played down the Vela Incident at the time, though U.S. Air Force dispatched several WC-135B surveillance aircraft to the area, which turned up naught. Though detectors worldwide reported no increase of radioactive fallout, the ionospheric observatory at Arecibo did detect an atmospheric wave on the same morning as the event.

Israel ratified the Limited Test Ban Treaty in 1964. To date, Israel has never acknowledged that the test took place or the possession of nuclear weapons. Over the years, other suspect states have included Pakistan, France and India. Today, probably the only true final confirmation would come from someone stepping forward who was directly involved with the test, as it must have required the silence of a large number of personnel.

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A comparison of the Vela event with a known nuclear test and a typical “zoo event’. Image credit: Vela Event Alert 747, Los Alamos Nat’l Laboratory

Was it a reentry or a bolide? Again, the signature double flash seen by the Vela satellite makes it unlikely. A micrometeoroid striking the spacecraft could have caused an anomalous detection known as a ‘zoo event,’ mimicking a nuclear test. Los Alamos researchers who have analyzed the event over the years remain convinced in the assertion that the 1979 Vela Incident had all the hallmark signatures of a nuclear test.

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A U.S. nuclear detonation during Operation Upshot-Knothole in 1953. Image credit: National Nuclear Security Administration/Public Domain

Shortly after the Cold War, the U.S. Department of Defense made much of its atmospheric monitoring data public, revealing that small meteorites strike us much more often than realized. Sadly, this type of continual monitoring accompanied by public data release has declined in recent years mostly due to budgetary concerns, though monitoring of the worldwide environment for nuclear testing via acoustic microphone on land, sea and eyes overhead in space continues.

And it’s frightening to think how close we came to a nuclear exchange during the Cold War on several occasions. For example: in 1960, an Distant Early Warning System based in Thule, Greenland mistook the rising Moon for a Soviet missile launch (!) The United States also conducted nuclear tests in space shortly before the Test Ban Treaty went into effect, including Starfish Prime:

The Vela Incident remains a fascinating chapter of the Cold War, one where space and the geopolitical intrigue overlap. Even today, parsing out the difference between human-made explosions and the cataclysmic events that pepper the cosmos remains a primary concern for the continued preservation of our civilization.

Image credit: Dave Dickinson
Tactical nuclear weapons from around the world seen on display at the Nuclear Science Museum in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Image credit: Dave Dickinson

-Listen to an interesting discussion on monitoring nuclear plants worldwide via neutrino emissions.

-For a fascinating in-depth discussion on the continued relevance of the Vela Incident, check out this recent article by The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists.

Gamma Ray Bursts Limit The Habitability of Certain Galaxies, Says Study

Gamma ray bursts (GRBs) are some of the brightest, most dramatic events in the Universe. These cosmic tempests are characterized by a spectacular explosion of photons with energies 1,000,000 times greater than the most energetic light our eyes can detect. Due to their explosive power, long-lasting GRBs are predicted to have catastrophic consequences for life on any nearby planet. But could this type of event occur in our own stellar neighborhood? In a new paper published in Physical Review Letters, two astrophysicists examine the probability of a deadly GRB occurring in galaxies like the Milky Way, potentially shedding light on the risk for organisms on Earth, both now and in our distant past and future.

There are two main kinds of GRBs: short, and long. Short GRBs last less than two seconds and are thought to result from the merger of two compact stars, such as neutron stars or black holes. Conversely, long GRBs last more than two seconds and seem to occur in conjunction with certain kinds of Type I supernovae, specifically those that result when a massive star throws off all of its hydrogen and helium during collapse.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, long GRBs are much more threatening to planetary systems than short GRBs. Since dangerous long GRBs appear to be relatively rare in large, metal-rich galaxies like our own, it has long been thought that planets in the Milky Way would be immune to their fallout. But take into account the inconceivably old age of the Universe, and “relatively rare” no longer seems to cut it.

In fact, according to the authors of the new paper, there is a 90% chance that a GRB powerful enough to destroy Earth’s ozone layer occurred in our stellar neighborhood some time in the last 5 billion years, and a 50% chance that such an event occurred within the last half billion years. These odds indicate a possible trigger for the second worst mass extinction in Earth’s history: the Ordovician Extinction. This great decimation occurred 440-450 million years ago and led to the death of more than 80% of all species.

Today, however, Earth appears to be relatively safe. Galaxies that produce GRBs at a far higher rate than our own, such as the Large Magellanic Cloud, are currently too far from Earth to be any cause for alarm. Additionally, our Solar System’s home address in the sleepy outskirts of the Milky Way places us far away from our own galaxy’s more active, star-forming regions, areas that would be more likely to produce GRBs. Interestingly, the fact that such quiet outer regions exist within spiral galaxies like our own is entirely due to the precise value of the cosmological constant – the factor that describes our Universe’s expansion rate – that we observe. If the Universe had expanded any faster, such galaxies would not exist; any slower, and spirals would be far more compact and thus, far more energetically active.

In a future paper, the authors promise to look into the role long GRBs may play in Fermi’s paradox, the open question of why advanced lifeforms appear to be so rare in our Universe. A preprint of their current work can be accessed on the ArXiv.