Astronomers have observed the brightest flash of light ever, from an event that occurred 2.4 billion light-years from Earth and was likely caused by the formation of a black hole.
The burst of gamma rays — the most intense form of electromagnetic radiation — was first detected by orbiting telescopes on Oct. 9, and its afterglow is still being watched by scientists around the world.
Astrophysicist Brendan O’Connor told AFP that gamma-ray bursts lasting hundreds of seconds, such as those that occurred on Sunday, are caused by dying massive stars more than 30 times larger than our sun.
The star explodes in a supernova, collapses into a black hole, then matter forms in a disk around the black hole, falls into it and is spewed out in a beam of energy traveling 99.99 percent of the speed of light.
The flash released photons containing a record 18 tera-electron volts of energy — that’s 18 with 12 zeros behind it — and impacted long-wave radio communications in Earth’s ionosphere.
“It really breaks records, both in the amount of photons and the energy of the photons reaching us,” said O’Connor, who made new observations early Friday with infrared instruments at the Gemini South telescope in Chile.
“Something so bright, so close, is really a once-in-a-century event,” he added.
Gamma-ray research began in the 1960s when US satellites designed to detect whether the Soviet Union detonated bombs in space eventually found such bursts from outside the Milky Way.
“Gamma-ray bursts generally release the same amount of energy that our sun produces in the span of a few seconds throughout its lifetime — and this event is the brightest gamma-ray burst,” O’Connor said.
This gamma-ray burst, known as GRB 221009A, was first spotted by telescopes including NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope, Neil Gehrels Swift Observatory and Wind spacecraft on Sunday morning Eastern Time.
1.9 billion year old movie
It originated from the direction of the constellation Sagitta and has traveled an estimated 1.9 billion years to reach Earth — less than the current distance from its starting point, as the universe is expanding.
Observing the event now is like watching a 1.9 billion-year-old recording of those events unfold before us, giving astronomers a rare opportunity to gain new insights into things like black hole formation. .
“That’s what makes this kind of science so addictive — you get an adrenaline rush when these things happen,” said O’Connor, who is an associate of the University of Maryland and George Washington University.
In the coming weeks, he and others will continue to look at the signatures of supernovae at optical and infrared wavelengths to confirm that their hypothesis about the flash’s origin is correct and that the event conforms to known physics.
Unfortunately, although the first eruption was visible to amateur astronomers, it has since disappeared from their sight.
Supernova explosions are also predicted to be responsible for the production of heavy elements — such as gold, platinum, uranium — and astronomers will also be on the hunt for their signatures.
Astrophysicists have written in the past that the sheer force of gamma-ray bursts could trigger extinction levels here on Earth.
But O’Connor pointed out that this scenario isn’t something we should worry too much about, because the energy beams are very tightly focused and probably won’t originate in our galaxy.
Record-breaking gamma-ray burst may be most powerful explosion ever recorded
© 2022 AFP
Quote: Astronomers are fascinated by the brightest flash ever seen (2022, October 16) retrieved October 16, 2022 from https://phys.org/news/2022-10-astronomers-captivated-brightest.html
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