Astronomer Capture New Information On Gamma Ray Burst

Gamma Ray Burst

We’ve been tracking gamma ray bursts since the Cold War, when spy satellites first detected them. It was purely accidental.

Now we can typically identify about one a day. So far, we haven’t had any occur close enough to us to constitute any real danger.

Gamma rays are some of the most active electromagnetic waves in the universe. A gamma ray burst (GRB) is also one of the most energetic galactic events. They’re produced in one of two ways.

The first option is when a massive star goes supernova and dies, resulting in a black hole. This GRB can be long, lasting about a minute. The second option is when two stars collide. This also results in a black hole but is usually a much shorter explosion. It lasts just a few seconds at most. Both of these options are the death of stars, so GRBs are always associated with star deaths and black hole formations.

Explosion in the Stars

Most recently, researchers led by the University of Maryland were able to get the most detailed look at an GRB ever. This is huge news! Since GRBs last a minute at most and they come from random places in the universe, it can be pretty difficult to catch one.

Scientists observed the latest event, named GRB 160625B, from start to finish. Although it didn’t take much time to happen, it revealed the most intimate data ever collected for an explosion of this magnitude. And the results were anything but expected.

Scanning the Universe

This particular GRB came from the Crab Nebula, which is already the remnant of a supernova. The GRB lasted less than a second, so capturing it was as lucky as you can get. NASA’s Fermi Gamma Ray Telescope recorded it last year. The telescope is specifically designed to monitor space for gamma rays and gamma ray bursts.

Since this was the first time a burst was recorded from start to finish, astronomers made some impressive discoveries. First, they were able to put two theories to rest about how the GRB evolves. When the event begins, the gamma rays are strong enough to break free of both the matter and the magnetic field. As it goes on, the magnetic field breaks down and matter begins to dominate the gamma rays.

This is a combination of the original hypothesis, where scientists assumed it would be one or the other but not both.

The Big Deal

However, the most exciting discovery that accompanied the observation of GRB 160625B had to do with polarized optical light. Gamma rays on their own are not visible to the naked eye. However, this burst was bright enough and spanned enough of the electromagnetic spectrum that it could be seen with binoculars if you were looking at the right spot.

The prompt phase — or the initial phase that produces so much light — must therefore be powered by synchrotron radiation. This is essentially radiation powered by electrons accelerated in a curved or spiral motion. There had been a debate before about what kind of radiation would power such a burst. However, the results have all pointed to synchrotron radiation as being the only realistic applicant.

That particular type of radiation is what allows us to see the burst. It’s the only thing that can produce the kind of polarized light that is both seen and detected from GRBs. Figuring that out was anything but easy. Capturing the entire thing in such detail was only done because it was witnessed from multiple areas.

Of course, the Fermi Gamma Ray Telescope picked it up first and was able to catch and monitor the prompt phase. But soon after, the MASTER-IAC telescope in the Canary Islands picked it up too. Although the telescopes were off the coast of Spain, they’re actually part of Russia’s telescopic network, which has locations in various regions of the world.

The MASTER-IAC was able to monitor the visible light that emitted by the event. This was how we learned that the visible light is highly polarized and, therefore, a product of synchrotron radiation. That, combined with the initial data gathered from the prompt phase, allowed researchers to determine how the magnetic field worked at first and then deteriorated.

A combination of different organizations captured data on this GRB across the light spectrum. The findings, published in Nature, combine the efforts of eight different organizations. The event itself occurred in June 2016 and the data took over a year to organize and publish.

Altogether, this single event has given researchers new and robust data on these explosions. The biggest and most catastrophic event in the universe is still a mystery, but not quite as much as it was before.



Written By: Megan Ray Nichols – Science Writer  www.schooledbyscience.com/about/  Contact: nicholsrmegan@gmail.com

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