Scientists have discovered a phenomenally powerful burst of cosmic rays – known as a gamma-ray burst – that likely occurred when a giant star died and turned into an all-consuming black hole.
Gamma Ray Bursts (GRBs) are among the most energetic cosmic explosions to light up the cosmos since the Big Bang is thought to have formed. Astronomers believe that most GRBs occur when a truly massive star, at the end of its life, collapses inward after running out of the materials needed to sustain the nuclear fusion reaction at its core.
This spectacular implosion heralds the birth of a black holewhile the newly formed singularity emits jets of gamma rays that, traveling at near the speed of light, can glow a million trillion times (yes, a million trillion) brighter than the sun. A beam of X-rays is also released when the fast-moving jets collide with the gas clouds ejected from the dead star.
NASA Black Hole Gallery
On Sunday, October 9, detectors aboard NASA’s fleet of spacecraft were triggered when a powerful wave of gamma rays and X-rays swept through the solar system, signaling the occurrence of an exceptionally powerful gamma-ray burst.
After the event’s initial detection – dubbed GRB 221009A – astronomers around the world rushed to train a host of the world’s most powerful telescopes on the aftermath of the blast. A number of orbiting spacecraft also joined the effort, including NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope and Neil Gehrel’s Swift Observatory.
Working together, the keen robotic eyes were able to capture the evolving light signature from the blast across optical, infrared, gamma and X-ray wavelengths. The signal originated about 2.4 billion light-years from Earth in the direction of the Sagittarius constellation and lasted a few hundred seconds. According to these early observations, GRB 221009A is the brightest GRB ever recorded since the advent of modern times Sciencepossibly by a factor of 10.
“Given that most other long GRBs result from the collapse of a massive star, we have every reason to believe that we will find direct evidence of a supernova,” explains Ph.D. Student Jillian Rastinejad from Northwest University, Illinois, who helped envision the event. “But that will take more work and time to confirm, and the universe could always surprise us.”
However, there is a clock in the scientific community’s observations of GRB 221009A – as the gamma-ray source will be temporarily obscured by our Sun’s glare in just over a month.
When it becomes visible again early next year, astronomers will get back to work to unravel the mysteries of how such a powerful burst of light came about.
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Anthony Wood is a freelance science writer for IGN