Brightest Gamma-ray Burst Shines Light on Milky Way Structure

GRB Burst
XMM Newton's view of the remnant of the record-setting gamma-ray burst 221009A. ESA

The brightest gamma-ray burst ever seen in 2022 still puzzles astronomers.

The more researchers look at a recent record-setting event, the stranger it gets.

The story begins on the evening of October 9th, 2022, when NASA’s Neil Gehrels Swift orbiting observatory detected a strong X-ray outburst. The source was in the direction of the constellation of Sagitta the Arrow along the galactic plane, suggesting a source in our own Milky Way galaxy. Follow-up observations from NASA’s Fermi Gamma-Ray Space Telescope and the Earth-based European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope however, soon revealed that the source was much more distant, emanating from a gamma-ray burst lying beyond our galaxy. This outburst only appeared to have happened along our line of sight as seen through the plane own galaxy from our Earthbound perspective.

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A Distant Galaxy Ate All of its Friends. Now It’s All Alone

Composite image of a lonely galaxy containing a supermassive black hole, two jets, and an X-ray hotspot, all surrounded by hot gas. Credit: NASA MSFC/SAO/Chandra

Over 13 billion years ago, the first galaxies in the Universe formed. They were elliptical, with intermediate black holes (IMBHs) at their centers surrounded by a halo of stars, gas, and dust. Over time, these galaxies evolved by flattening out into disks with a large bulge in the middle. They were then drawn together by mutual gravitational attraction to form galaxy clusters, massive collections that comprise the large-scale cosmic structure. This force of attraction also led to mergers, where galaxies and their central black holes came together to create larger spiral galaxies with central supermassive black holes (SMBHs).

This process of mergers and assimilation (and their role in galactic evolution) is still a mystery to astronomers today since much of it took place during the early Universe, which is still very difficult to observe with existing telescopes. Using data from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and the International Gemini Observatory, an international team of astronomers observed a lone distant galaxy that appears to have consumed all of its former companions. Their findings, which recently appeared in The Astrophysical Journal, suggest galaxies in the early Universe grew faster than previously thought.

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Hungry Black Hole was Already Feasting 800 Million Years After the Big Bang

Artist view of an active supermassive black hole. Credit: ESO/L. Calçada

Black holes swallow everything—including light—which explains why we can’t see them. But we can observe their immediate surroundings and learn about them. And when they’re on a feeding binge, their surroundings become even more luminous and observable.

This increased luminosity allowed astronomers to find a black hole that was feasting on material only 800 million years after the Universe began.

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Chandra’s X-ray Vision Combined With JWST Reveals Even More Details About the Universe

A composite image showing x-ray radiation superimposed over an infrared image. Credit: NASA

NASA scientist have released images combining the early data from the James Webb Space Telescope with X-ray data taken with the Chandra Observatory. Besides their beauty, the images offer insights into the inner workings of some of the most complex astrophysical phenomena in the universe.

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Astronomers Finally Catch a Nova Detonating on a White Dwarf as it's Happening

Artist impression of an exploding White Dwarf. Credit: University of Tubigen.

On July 7, 2020, the X-ray instrument eROSITA captured an astronomical event that – until then – had only been theorized and never seen. It saw the detonation of a nova on a white dwarf star, which produced a so-called fireball explosion of X-rays.

“It was to some extent a fortunate coincidence, really,” said Ole König from Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg (FAU), who led the team of scientists who have published a new paper on the discovery. “These X-ray flashes last only a few hours and are almost impossible to predict, but the observational instrument must be pointed directly at the explosion at exactly the right time.”

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NASA Launches a New X-ray Observatory

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launches with NASA’s Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE) spacecraft onboard from Launch Complex 39A, Thursday, Dec. 9, 2021, at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The IXPE spacecraft is the first satellite dedicated to measuring the polarization of X-rays from a variety of cosmic sources, such as black holes and neutron stars. Launch occurred at 1 a.m. EST. Credits: NASA/Joel Kowsky

A new mission has launched to study some the most intriguing secrets of the universe. No, not THAT spacecraft (JWST is scheduled for launch on December 22). Another new and exciting mission is called Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE) and it will allow scientists to explore the hidden details of some of the most extreme and high-energy objects in the cosmos, such as black holes, neutron stars, pulsars and dozens of other objects.

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Astronomers Might Have Found a Planet in Another Galaxy

An illustration of an X-ray binary with a possible planet. Image Credit: NASA/CXC/M. Weiss

Not that long ago,, astronomers weren’t sure that exoplanets even existed. Now we know that there are thousands of them and that most stars probably harbour exoplanets. There could be hundreds of billions of exoplanets in the Milky Way, by some estimates. So there’s no reason to think that stars in other galaxies don’t host planets.

But to find one of those planets in another galaxy? That is a significant scientific achievement.

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Ions Surf Through Jupiter’s Magnetic Field, Triggering its Auroras

Auroras come in many shapes and sizes.  Jupiter is well known for its spectacular complement of bright polar lights, which also have the distinction of appearing in the X-ray band.  These auroras are also extreme power sources, emitting almost a gigawatt of energy in a few minutes. But what exactly causes them has been a mystery for the last 40 years.  Now, a team used data from a combination of satellites to identify what is causing these powerful emissions.  The answer appears to be charged ions surfing on a kind of wave.

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Uranus X-Rays are Probably Reflected Sunlight, but There Could be Another Source as Well

X-rays offer a unique insight into the astronomical world.  Invisible to the naked eye, most commonly they are thought of as the semi-dangerous source of medical scans.  However, X-ray observatories, like the Chandra X-ray Observatory are capable of seeing astronomical features that no other telescope can.  Recently scientists found some of those X-rays coming from a relatively unexpected source – Uranus.

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One Type of Fast Radio Bursts… Solved?

An artist’s view of Insight-HXMT observing a magnetar. Credit: Chinese Academy of Sciences

Every now and then there is a burst of radio light in the sky. It lasts for just milliseconds before fading. It’s known as a Fast Radio Burst (FRB), and they are difficult to observe and study. We know they are powerful bursts of energy, but we aren’t entirely sure what causes them.

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