Tag Archives: gamma ray burst

Gold doesn’t fall out of the sky – but it’s created in the heavens

For thousands of years gold has been the embodiment of wealth. Its chemical stability and scarcity make it ideal for coinage. In the USA, the link between gold and currency has only been weakened in 1933 when the gold standard fell out of use, and was fully separated from the dollar in 1971. While currently no country uses the gold standard any longer, money deriving its value from government regulation or law  (called fiat currency), for much of human history gold has been the basis of most economic structures: everything had a corresponding value relative to the metal.

It is found in economy as a carrier of value, in art as a symbol of grandeur and in social interactions as a sign of high status. Religions across the globe reinforce this key place for gold, using it either literally – in contexts linked with divinity – or metaphorically, as mark of purity. But for the central role it played in human society, we know surprisingly little about how gold came into being. Research by the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) may help us better understand the processes which create this soft, shiny and precious metal.

Gold rules the world. Powerful dark magic helps too.
Image credit to vincentxyooj, via: deviantart.com

While we’ve previously wrote on the importance and creation of gold here, research based on recent observations of a nearby gamma-ray burst, GRB 130603B, helps to explain how gold and silver atoms are created.

These bursts are flashes of high-energy light (gamma rays), associated with explosions. Researchers believe that the immense energy released in the GRB 130603B event resulted from the collision of two neutron stars–deceased cores of stars that have exhausted their fuel and exploded. Gamma-ray bursts come in two varieties – long and short – depending on how long the flash of gamma rays lasts. GRB 130603B, detected by NASA’s Swift satellite on June 3rd, lasted for less than two-tenths of a second, followed by a glow dominated by infrared light that radiated from the area for several days after the explosion, exhibiting unusual behavior.

Its brightness and behavior didn’t match a typical ‘afterglow,’ which is created when a high-speed jet of particles slams into the surrounding environment. Instead, the glow behaved like it came from exotic radioactive elements. The neutron-rich material ejected by colliding neutron stars can generate such elements, which then undergo radioactive decay, emitting a glow that’s dominated by infrared light – exactly what the team observed.

“We’ve been looking for a ‘smoking gun’ to link a short gamma-ray burst with a neutron star collision. The radioactive glow from GRB 130603B may be that smoking gun,” explains Wen-fai Fong, a graduate student at the CfA and a co-author of the paper.

In this high-energy event, two neutron stars collide. Scientists believe the glowing aftermath is the origin of elements such as gold. Image via: popsci.com

In this high-energy event, two neutron stars collide. Scientists believe the glowing aftermath is the origin of elements such as gold.
Image via: popsci.com

The team believes that significant quantities of gold and other heavy elements were created and released in that area during the collision.

“We estimate that the amount of gold produced and ejected during the merger of the two neutron stars may be as large as 10 moon masses–quite a lot of bling!” lead author Edo Berger said in a statement.

“To paraphrase Carl Sagan, we are all star stuff, and our jewelry is colliding-star stuff,” says Berger.

As gamma-ray burst events are quite frequent, Berger and his colleagues hypothesize that all the gold in our universe could have been created this way.

The team’s results have been submitted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal Letters and are available online. Berger’s co-authors are Wen-fai Fong and Ryan Chornock, both of the CfA.

Light from huge explosion 12 billion years ago reaches Earth

Intense light from a huge explosion (a gamma ray burst) that took place shortly after the birth of the Universe (12 billion years ago) has reached Earth, and was observed by researchers.

Gamma Ray bursts are the strongest explosions since the Big Bang – in just 10 seconds, they release more energy than our sun in its entire life time; read this a few times, and let it sink in.

So far, they have only been observed in distant galaxies, because, well, if they would take place in nearby galaxies, let’s just say there wouldn’t be much around to observe them. Because of the immense distance of most gamma-ray burst sources from Earth, identification of the progenitors, the systems that produce these explosions, is particularly challenging.  To put it simply, we don’t know exactly why they happen, but we do have some good bets. Most observed gamma ray bursts are believed to occur when huge stars supernova or hypernova rotate more and more rapidly, ultimately collapsing to form a neutron star, quark star, or black hole. They are short bursts, but as I said, extremely energetic.

This particular gamma ray burst traveled for 12.1 billion years before it was detected and observed by a telescope, ROTSE-IIIb, from the Southern Methodist University, Dallas. Robert Kehoe, physics professor and leader of the SMU astronomy team also believes this explosion was caused by a supernova:

“Gamma-ray bursts may be particularly massive cousins to supernovae, or may correspond to cases in which the explosion ejecta are more beamed in our direction. By studying them, we learn about supernovae,” Kehoe said.

Astronomers weren’t able to spot gamma ray bursts until recently, when the telescope technologies improved, because gamma rays have the shortest wavelengths and are visible only using special detectors. But recently, scientists have gotten better at spotting  them.

“The optical light is visible for anywhere from a few seconds to a few hours,” Kehoe said. “Sometimes optical telescopes can capture the spectra. This allows us to calculate the redshift of the light, which tells us how fast the light is moving away from us. This is an indirect indication of the distance from us.”

When such a telescope detects a gamma ray burst, it immediately relays the location – everything is automatized, and there are no human observers in the first phase – though astronomers naturally analyze the information afterwards.

“We have the brightest detection and the earliest response on both of those because our telescope is fully robotic and no human hands were involved,” Ferrante said.

This discovery was not published in a peer review, but it was officially announced.



In a Rainbow Universe, time may have no beginning

It’s one of the most alluring but hard to prove (and unlikely) theories: a Rainbow Universe. A Universe in which time simply stretches back indefinitely, without a big bang to start things off, simply with no beginning – something pretty hard to fathom.

Image credits: cherrychill

The name comes from the so-called Rainbow Gravity; basically gravity’s effects on spacetime are felt differently by different wavelengths of light (all the colors in the rainbow). Rainbow gravity was first proposed 10 years ago in an attempt to unify quantum mechanics and general relativity. However, it can’t explain all the quantum effects on gravity, and it gained little popularity since it was developed.

According to Einstein’s general relativity, gravity is not really a force, like in Newtonian physics. Basically, objects with a large mass warp spacetime so that anything traveling through it, including light, takes a curving path – and this is gravity. In standard physics, the path shouldn’t depend on the energy of the particles, but in a Rainbow Universe, it does.

“Particles with different energies will actually see different spacetimes, different gravitational fields,” says Adel Awad of the Center for Theoretical Physics at Zewail City of Science and Technology in Egypt, who led the new research, published in October in the Journal of Cosmology and Astroparticle Physics.

The color of the light is determined by its frequency; different frequencies have different energies, and therefore will be affected differently by gravity. The effects would be very small on a cosmic scale, but they become quite important when dealing with particles emitted by stellar explosions called gamma-ray bursts, for instance. But this theory is still largely disregarded.

“So far we have no conclusive evidence that this is going on,” says Giovanni Amelino-Camelia, a physicist at the Sapienza University of Rome who has researched the possibility of such signals.

It has to be kept in mind that one of the biggest supporters of a Rainbow Universe is Lee Smolin. He’s one of the most “creative” theoretical physicists of our time, but many physicists disregard many of his theories because they’re usually scant on details and provide little opportunities to falsify his claims.

“It’s a model that I do not believe has anything to do with reality,” says Sabine Hossenfelder of the Nordic Institute for Theoretical Physics. This idea is not the only way to do away with the big bang singularity, she adds. “The problem isn’t to remove the singularity, the problem is to modify general relativity in a consistent way, so that one still reproduces all its achievements and that of the Standard Model [of particle physics] in addition.”

Smolin says that in his mind, the idea rainbow gravity has been subsumed in a larger idea called relative locality. The mind boggling idea of relative locality is that observers in different locations across spacetime will see it happening in different places — in other words, location is relative.

“Relative locality is a deeper way of understanding the same idea” as rainbow gravity, Smolin says. The new paper by Awad and his colleagues “is interesting,” he adds, “but before really believing the result, I would want to redo it within the framework of relative locality. There are going to be problems with locality the way it’s written that the authors might not be aware of.”

An artist’s conception of the processes by which a star collapses and becomes a black hole, releasing high-energy gamma rays and X-rays, as well as visible light, in the process (credit: NASA)

Armada of instruments witness the brightest cosmic event of the century: the birth of a black hole

An artist’s conception of the processes by which a star collapses and becomes a black hole, releasing high-energy gamma rays and X-rays, as well as visible light, in the process (credit: NASA)

An artist’s conception of the processes by which a star collapses and becomes a black hole, releasing high-energy gamma rays and X-rays, as well as visible light, in the process (credit: NASA)

Astronomers all over the world rejoiced recently after they were treated to a most privileged event. Using the RAPTOR (RAPid Telescopes for Optical Response) system in New Mexico and Hawaii, in conjunction with the most sophisticated observatories in the world, researchers witnessed what may be the most brightest event this century: an extreme flash of light emanated as a massive star “drew its last breath”, giving birth to a black hole.

The event, dubbed GRB 130427A, took place somewhere in the  constellation Leo and generated a huge flash following the collapse of a massive star simultaneously releasing visible light, X-rays and gamma rays in one big gamma-ray burst. The whole burst lasted for around 80 seconds, which might not seem like much, but considering typically most gamma-ray bursts only last a couple fractions of a second to a few seconds, this should give you an idea of how massive the explosion was.

“This was a Rosetta-Stone event that illuminates so many things — literally,” said  astrophysicist Tom Vestrand. “We were very fortunate to have all of the NASA and ground-based instruments seeing it at the same time. We had all the assets in place to collect a very detailed data set. These are data that astrophysicists will be looking at for a long time to come because we have a detailed record of the event as it unfolded.”

[RELATED] Earth was hit by a massive gamma-ray burst in the 8th century

No doubt this was an extremely rare event and astronomers were very lucky to catch it in full sight. What’s even more fortunate, however, is that the flash was caught by an armada of instruments — including gamma-ray and X-ray detectors aboard NASA’s Fermi, NuSTAR and Swift satellites. This means that a slew of data on GRB 130427A is now available, painting maybe the most complete picture yet of such an event, and allowing scientists to learn more about what happens when a black hole is born. For instance, following the intense gamma-ray  a lingering “afterglow” that faded in lock-step with the highest energy gamma-rays was recorded.

“This afterglow is interesting to see,” said paper co-author Przemek Wozniak of Los Alamos’s Intelligence and Space Research Division. “We normally see a flash associated with the beginning of an event, analogous to the bright flash that you would see coinciding with the explosion of a firecracker. This afterglow may be somewhat analogous to the embers that you might be able to see lingering after your firecracker has exploded. It is the link between the optical phenomenon and the gamma-rays that we haven’t seen before, and that’s what makes this display extremely exciting.”



Earth was hit by a massive gamma-ray burst in the 8th century


The most powerful explosion in the Universe – a gamma-ray burst–  might have hit Earth during the middle ages. Luckily enough for our ancestors the event had its origin thousands of light years away and its effects went by unnoticed.

Last year, scientists found  unusual levels of radioactive carbon-14 in cedar trees in Japan and spikes of  beryllium-10 in Antarctic ice, signifying that intense amounts of radiations hit the atoms in the upper atmosphere. After dating both tree rings and ice core samples, the researchers were able to pinpoint the spikes at AD 774 and AD 775, however the exact cause of the radioactive event is still open for debate.

German physicists at the Institute of Astrophysics at the University of Jena firmly believe that a gamma-ray burst – the most powerful explosion in the Universe typically triggered when black holes, neutron stars or white dwarfs collide – hit our planet during that time.

“Gamma-ray bursts are very, very explosive and energetic events, and so we considered from the energy what would be the distance given the energy observed,” said Professor Ralph Neuhauser, from the Institute of Astrophysics at the University of Jena.

“Our conclusion was it was 3,000 to 12,000 light-years away – and this is within our galaxy.”

Now, how come such an event didn’t cause a tremendous amount of hassle? One would expect records of an astonishing event especially from the likes of our superstitious medieval forefathers. The physicists explain that since the gamma-ray burst had its origin so far away from Earth, most of its radiation was absorbed by the ever faithful and protective atmosphere. This made the event unnoticeable, except for same traces that left their mark in isotopes. Had the gamma-ray occurred only a few hundred light years away from Earth, things would have been much different. The massive burst of radiation would have fried the planet’s ozone layer, with devastating consequences for life on the planet.

The findings were reported in the  journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Not all scientists agree that a gamma-ray event triggered the event. Another team of physicists, this time from the US, believe that an unusual massive solar flare could have caused the intense spike in isotopes. The American astronomers awknoledge the possibility of a gamma-ray burst, however keeping mind that such events are extremely rare, occurring at most every 10,000 years per galaxy, and at the least every million years per galaxy. Their take was described in a recent paper published in Nature.

“A solar proton event and a short gamma-ray burst are both possible explanations, but based on the rates that we know about in the Universe, the gamma-ray burst explanation is about 10,000 times less likely to be true in that time period,” Professor Adrian Melott from the University of Kansas.

via BBC

Vampire Star

Most powerful stars are actually vampire binary systems. The weaker feeds on the stronger

Vampire StarA new research has found that the massively powerful O-type stars, which can be up to 90 times more powerful than our own sun, actually come in pairs most of the time, as a binary system. The two stars wrapper in this dance have a special kind of relationship developed with one another. Thus, one of the stars feeds on the other, sucking gas and fuel from its counterpart like a vampire, or the two eventually end up merging into a single star.

Astronomers used the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope in Chile to study the  massive O-type stars – incredibly hot and intensely bright stars.

“These stars are absolute behemoths,” says Hugues Sana of the University of Amsterdam.

“They have 15 or more times the mass of our sun and can be up to a million times brighter. These stars are so hot that they shine with a brilliant blue-white light and have surface temperatures over 30,000 degrees Celsius.”

Data gathered from the light  captured by the telescope and  emitted by 71 O-type single stars and members of binaries in six nearby young star clusters in the Milky Way bewildered scientists. According to their findings, 75 percent of all O-type stars exist as part of binary systems, a higher proportion than previously thought.

Type O stars are important for the Universe’s “ecosystem” and represent one of the most powerful classes of stars known in the cosmos. They drive galaxy evolution by hurling heavy elements crucial for life through space via the powerful winds and shocks coming from the stars. Also, they’re associated with with gamma-ray bursts, which are among the most energetic phenomena in the Universe. But these stellar giants can also exhibit extreme behavior, garnering the nickname ” vampire stars ” for the way they suck matter from neighboring companions.

“The life of a star is greatly affected if it exists alongside another star,” says Selma de Mink of the Space Telescope Science Institute.

“If two stars orbit very close to each other they may eventually merge. But even if they don’t, one star will often pull matter off the surface of its neighbour.”

Until now, most astronomers believed that closely-orbiting massive binary stars were rare. This isn’t the case as this recent study found. On the contrary heavyweight double stars are rather common it seems, and their life cycle greatly differs from those of single stars. In the case of vampire stars, the lower-mass star sucks fresh hydrogen from its companion, substantially increasing its mass and enabling it to live much longer than a single star of the same mass would. The victim star, on the other hand, is left with an exposed core that mimics the appearance of a much younger star. This might mislead some scientists in their efforts, the researchers worry.

“The only information astronomers have on distant galaxies is from the light that reaches our telescopes,” says Sana.

“Without making assumptions about what is responsible for this light we cannot draw conclusions about the galaxy, such as how massive or how young it is. This study shows that the frequent assumption that most stars are single can lead to the wrong conclusions.”

Findings were reported in Friday’s issue of the journal Science.


Multiwavelength X-ray / infrared image of SN 1572 or Tycho's Nova, the remnant of a Type Ia supernova (NASA/CXC/JPL-Caltech/Calar Alto O. Krause et al.)

Astronomers paint a clearer picture of how supernovae are born

Supernovae are one of the most energetic and brightest events in the cosmos, often so powerful they outshine whole galaxies. They’re considered  to play a major role in our understanding of the Universe, which is why scientists have invested so much time and effort into studying them. A recent study of X-ray and ultraviolet observations from NASA’s Swift satellite has helped astronomers understand better how Type Ia supernovae come to be.

Multiwavelength X-ray / infrared image of SN 1572 or Tycho's Nova, the remnant of a Type Ia supernova (NASA/CXC/JPL-Caltech/Calar Alto O. Krause et al.)

Multiwavelength X-ray / infrared image of SN 1572 or Tycho's Nova, the remnant of a Type Ia supernova (NASA/CXC/JPL-Caltech/Calar Alto O. Krause et al.)

A Type Ia supernova forms when a white dwarf, the remnant of a star that has completed its normal life cycle and has ceased nuclear fusion,  reaches a critical mass and detonates. This certain supernova family has been found to be extremely useful to astronomers’ studies, who have used their intense brightness as beacons or candle lights to determine vast distances in space. Also, studies of Type Ia supernovae led to the discovery of dark energy, which garnered the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics.

Despite the fact astronomers have known for decades how Type Ia supernovae form, the exact mechanisms that lead to their formation are currently yet obscured.

“For all their importance, it’s a bit embarrassing for astronomers that we don’t know fundamental facts about the environs of these supernovae,” says Stefan Immler, an astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

“Now, thanks to unprecedented X-ray and ultraviolet data from Swift, we have a clearer picture of what’s required to blow up these stars.”

What sets off a supernova

The main model of formation for a Type Ia supernova involves a close binary star system. There are two dominant theories regarding this. The first and most popular theory currently suggests a white dwarf orbits a normal star and pulls a stream of matter from it, feeding from it until it reaches the necessary mass and explodes into a supernova. A second possible mechanism for triggering a Type Ia supernova is the merger of two white dwarfs, which collide like vast hypermassive billiard balls leading to a cataclysmic blast.

NASA’s Swift satellite, which orbits the Earth and is primarily used to sniff out gamma-ray bursts emitted from far away black holes, is also used from time to time to study supernovae. Its latest find came after it was directed towards the closest Type Ia supernova, called SN 2011fe, offering scientists data that suggest the white dwarf from which it sprang was a particularly picky eater.

“It’s hard to understand how a white dwarf could eat itself to death while showing such good table manners,” said Alicia Soderberg of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA).

Namely, the astronomers couldn’t find any signs or traces left behind from a possible star explosion, the supernova exploded perfectly clean. Additional studies using NASA’s Swift satellite, which examined a large number of more distant Type Ia supernovae, appear to rule out giant stars as companions for the white-dwarf progenitors. When X-ray data was studied, scientists couldn’t find any X-ray point source, indicating that supergiant stars, and even sun-like stars in a later red giant phase, likely aren’t present in the host binaries. Swift’s X-ray Telescope (XRT) has studied more than 200 supernovae to date, of which about 30 percent are Type Ia.

Also, Swift’s Ultraviolet/Optical Telescope (UVOT) looked at 12 Type Ia supernova events within 10 days since their explosion. If the supernova would’ve been triggered by the interaction with larger, brighter stars, then its shock wave should have produced an enhanced ultraviolet light. Nothing of the kind was detected, which combined with other studies findings and X-ray evidence suggests Type Ia supernovae likely originate from a more exotic scenario, possibly the explosive merger of two white dwarfs.

“This is an exciting time in Type Ia supernova research since it brings us closer to solving one of the longest-standing mysteries in the life cycles of stars,” said Raffaella Margutti of the CfA, lead author of the second paper.

The researchers’ findings are set for publishing in April in the journals The Astrophysical Journal Letters and The Astrophysical Journal.

Fermi Space Telescope's map of gamma-ray emissions discovered so far. Nearly 600, a third of the total number of confirmed gamma-rays, have an untraceable origin.

One third of the discovered gamma rays so far have unknown sources

Fermi Space Telescope's map of gamma-ray emissions discovered so far. Nearly 600, a third of the total number of confirmed gamma-rays, have an untraceable origin.

Fermi Space Telescope's map of gamma-ray emissions discovered so far. Nearly 600, a third of the total number of confirmed gamma-rays, have an untraceable origin.

Set it went into operation, Fermi’s Large Area Telescope has detected 1873 gamma rays out in space, of which only two thirds have had their sources traced. Typically, gamma rays are huge bursts of energy generated by the collision between two stars or by black holes, however more than 600 discovered blasts still don’t have an explanation for their origin.

Several hypotheses have been launched around these untraceable super-energetic forms of light, the most popular possibility being that they’ve been triggered by some kind of dark matter event. Scientists know very little about dark matter, since it’s very hard to study due to the fact that it doesn’t emit any light, hence the “dark” adjective. What they do know is that it has a strong gravitational pull and that it makes up around 85% of the Universe, there rest being anything else we’re actually able to observe.

RELATED: Gamma ray bursts might cause extinction on Earth

This a very interesting hypothesis, which might lead to some staggering discoveries. Dark matter can’t be observed using conventional means like  a telescope or radio telescope, because it doesn’t shine, however inside a gamma ray blast, it might do. How would dark matter generate a gamma-ray blast?

“Some researchers believe that when two dark matter antiparticles bump into each other, they will annihilate, producing gamma rays. Concentrated clouds of dark matter could form a gamma ray source at specific wavelengths detectable by Fermi,” NASA explains.

“If we see a bump in the gamma-ray spectrum – a narrow spectral line at high energies corresponding to the energy of the annihilating particles – we could be the first to ‘apprehend’ dark matter,” Peter Michelson of Stanford University, the principal investigator for the Large Area Telescope said.

Watch NASA’s video “ScienceCasts: 600 Mysteries in the Night Sky” here:


Gamma-ray burst illustration. (c) NASA

Gamma-ray bursts might cause mass extinction on Earth

Gamma-ray burst illustration. (c) NASA

Gamma-ray burst illustration. (c) NASA

Most of us tend to believe the Earth is a safe heaven, with little regard to outerwordly consequences. The truth is our planet, although without a doubt a true gem within our galaxy, is susceptible to a slew of events triggered from within or well beyond our solar system. A lot of them are very dangerous to life on Earth, be it a menacing asteroid, a solar flare or even a terrifying gamma-ray burst.

Researchers of Washburn University, in Topeka, Kan. have studied gamma-ray bursts and its potential consequences, and now claim the Earth quite probably has been met by such events during its history, with dramatic consequences on the life harbored within it.

Gamma-ray bursts typically occur  when two stars collide, a process which leads to a giant energy burst into outer space. The gamma-ray bursts have the capability of depleting stratospheric ozone, allowing the most powerful and damaging forms of ultraviolet radiation to reach the Earth’s surface. Researchers are now beginning to connect the timing of these gamma-ray bursts to extinctions on Earth that can be dated through the fossil record.

“We find that a kind of gamma-ray burst — a short gamma-ray burst — is probably more significant than a longer gamma-ray burst,” study researcher Brian Thomas of Washburn University, in Topeka, Kan., said in a statement. “The duration is not as important as the amount of radiation.”

There are two types of gamma-ray bursts:  a longer, brighter burst caused by two collinding stars, as discussed earlier, and a short timed burst. The later caused by the collision of two black holes or neutron stars are even more harmful bursting an outrageous amount of radiation, even though the event only lasts a second.

Such an event, the researchers say, happens about once per 100 million years in any given galaxy. But if one did happen here, the results would be devastating. According to the scientists treating the study, if such an event should occur inside the Milky Way, dire consequences might afflict the Earth. The radiation, after reaching the atmosphere, would caused the depletion of the ozone by  knocking free oxygen and nitrogen atoms so they can recombine into ozone-destroying nitrous oxides. Earth would have been hit by several of these short-hard events over the course of its 4.5-billion-year history, according to the study authors.

The researchers are now looking of evidence of such an event. If a gamma-ray burst would have hit the Earth, the best sign of this would be the discovery of isotope iron-60. Isotopes like these   can reveal the strata of the events, it then becomes a matter of looking for extinction events that correlate and examining which species died and which survived.

“I work with some paleontologists and we try to look for correlations with extinctions, but they are skeptical,” said Thomas. “So if you go and give a talk to paleontologists, they are not quite into it. But to astrophysicists, it seems pretty plausible.”


Artist impression of a star getting ripped by a supermassive black hole. (c) Mark A. Garlick, University of Warwick

Intense Gamma Ray blast indeed traced back to supermassive black hole

Artist impression of a star getting ripped by a supermassive black hole. (c) Mark A. Garlick, University of Warwick

Artist impression of a star getting ripped by a supermassive black hole. (c) Mark A. Garlick, University of Warwick

We previously reported about an incredible gamma ray burst triggered by a black hole, so powerful that nothing like this was observed before, or even dimmed possible. A recently published paper in the journal Science sheds more light on the subject.

A typical gamma ray burst commonly occurs when massive stars explode due to collisions with other stars or simple from dying stars – these blasts of radiation usually last around 30 seconds, maybe a few minutes. This super Gamma Ray blast, first observed on 28th of March by the Swift telescope, went on it for days with high levels of radiation, and to this day it still hasn’t stop emitting. Actually, during its first couple of days of activity, the burst registered some wavelengths not visible to the naked eye as bright as a hundred billion suns, scientists report.

“This is probably the first time mankind has seen a phenomenon like this,” says astronomer Josh Bloom of the University of California- Berkeley, lead author of one of two studies on the outburst.

The study brings yet more evidence backing up the theory which say that the center of most big galaxies there’s a supermassive black hole, most of the time quite and dormant.

Swift and other satellites narrowed the origin of the March blast to the center of a galaxy about 22.4 billion trillion miles away or 3.8 billion light-years away, where a titanic black whole, weighing as much as 10 million times more than the sun, gobbled up a star and consumed its whole energy.

In addition, common gamma ray bursts are normally observed at the margin of a galaxy. Sw 1644+57, as the burst was dubbed, however was found in an unusual location – at the core of a galaxy.

“That’s the prime reason we started suspecting early on that a supermassive black hole was involved, because we know [galactic cores are] where these beasts reside.”

What’s remarkable is the game of chance which lead to the observation of this stunning phenomena. As the star was ripped apart by the black hole’s gravity, it was actually trained into a loop around the hole with the speed of light which caused a beam of radiation to spill out of latter’s center core. It took almost 4 billion years and precisely the perfect kind of geometry for the beam to hit Earth and astrophysicists to observe it.

“Seeing a star get ripped apart by a black hole from almost 4 billion light-years away, that’s a remarkable thing,” says astronomer Dave Goldberg, co-author of A User’s Guide to the Universe: Surviving the Perils of Black Holes, Time Paradoxes, and Quantum Uncertainty, who was not part of the studies. “We want to study black holes because they are tremendous natural laboratories for what happens to matter at very high energies.”

Dormant supermassive black holes are still a mystery for scientists, who still can’t unravel its spontaneous nature.

“What’s amazing,” Bloom said, “is that we have here an otherwise quiescent, starving black hole that has decided to go on a sudden feeding frenzy for a short period of time.”

Our galaxy, the Milky Way, seems to have a dormant supermassive black hole at its center as well, and if a Gamma Ray like the one presented earlier were to happen and point towards Earth, it would’ve wreak havoc. Chances something like this would ever happen, scientists assure, are astronomical.

Dormant Supermassive black hole arises stronger than ever

It’s still unclear if it was all about a stellar meal or if it was simply gas, or some other relatively unimportant phenomena that awoken the sleeping giant, but for the first time, astronomers have observed the awakening of a sleeping supermassive black hole.

The sleeping giant

It appeared to be a day just like any other when David Burrows of Penn State University in University Park and his colleagues reported observing the burst, which continued for more than 30 days. They declined any interview, because they submitted the article to Nature and it hasn’t yet been published, so there is still a lot of uncertainty surrounding this find.

NASA’s Swift spacecraft first spotted the fireworks, surprising the effect just minutes after it took place and at first thought it was a gamma ray burst, but a gamma ray burst lasts only for a few hours. As time went on and the energetic emissions associated with the March 28 outburst continued, Burrows and his collaborators say they became convinced that a quiescent black hole – in an similar way to what you would expect from the black hole at the center of the Milky Way. It is believed that a turn on such as this can only be the cause of a massive stellar meal, but since there is so little we still understand about it, researchers cannot make any conclusions.

What they do believe, however, is that as the food source went faster and faster towards its center, the black hoel started emitting x-rays stronger and stronger. Even this is not certain however, as alternative theories have been proposed, even though they appear less likely.

How to wake up a black hole

“The paper makes a very convincing case that a massive black hole was indeed activated,” comments theorist Zoltán Haiman of Columbia University. Monitoring the star for several years should reveal the origin of the fuel, he adds. If the black hole swallowed a single star, the jet will dim, but if the object suddenly gained access to a large reservoir of gas, the jet could stay bright for more than a thousand years.

An interesting (but unpleasant to hear about) scenario was theoretized by astronomers: the possibility of the supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy to wake up in the same way. In the case of that event, the Earth would experience a jet 40 times stronger than any solar flare ever recorded, and would be heavily ionized, significantly harming life on the face of the planet. However, researchers say there is absolutely no need to be alarmed about this, because the odds are astronomical.

Black hole in Dragon’s belly swallows star and everything goes nutty from here

Plot shows brightness changes recorded by telescopes. Credit: NASA/Swift/Penn State/J. Kennea


The Draco constellation (which is Latin for Dragon) is located at about 3.8 billion light years from Earth; just like every dragon that has at least some common sense, it breathes fire, especially after carelessly eating a nearby star.

Rewind. A mysterious cosmic blast in the Draco constellation is causing waves that continue to be observed long after researchers believe they should have stopped. Astronomers are scrambling, trying to find an answer to this puzzling question, but they haven’t been really successful, and nothing seems to explain this unusual situation; instead of the short lived gamma ray explosions that are typically associated with the death of a massive star that last only a few hours, the explosion continues to emit rays more than a week after the event.

This is a visible-light image of GRB 110328A's host galaxy (arrow) taken on April 4 by the Hubble Space Telescope's Wide Field Camera 3. The galaxy is 3.8 billion light-years away. (Credit: NASA/ESA/A. Fruchter - STScI)


“We know of objects in our own galaxy that can produce repeated bursts, but they are thousands to millions of times less powerful than the bursts we are seeing now,” said Andrew Fruchter, an astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore. “This is truly extraordinary.”

Images from Swift's Ultraviolet/Optical (white, purple) and X-ray telescopes (yellow and red) were combined in this view of GRB 110328A. The blast was detected only in X-rays, which were collected over a 3.4-hour period on March 28. (Credit: NASA/Swift/Stefan Immler)


Most galaxies, including our own, have supermassive black holes at their centers, with the mass more than a million times the Sun. But in a big galaxy, like the one we’re talking about, they can be even a thousand times bigger.

“Every spiral galaxy has a black hole at the center of it,” Paul Czysz, professor emeritus of aerospace engineering at St. Louis University, told TechNewsWorld. “At the center of our galaxy, there’s a lot of stars circulating around the black hole at the center of the Milky Way.”

Just like the Sun keeps the planets in our solar system spinning around it, a supermassive black hole does the same for a galaxy, but sometimes, it “chews” on one of the stars closest to it, thus generating the short lived gamma ray bursts I was telling you about earlier. However, this phenomenon could revolutionize researchers’ understanding of how supermassive black holes, which is quite important, considering we have one of them in the very center of the Milky Way.