The flashes, known as gamma ray bursts, are beams of high energy radiation – similar to the radiation emitted by explosions of nuclear weapons – produced by jets of plasma from massive dying stars.
The orthodox model for this cosmic jet engine involves plasma being heated by neutrinos in a disk of matter that forms around a black hole, which is created when a star collapses.
But mathematicians at the University of Leeds have come up with a different explanation: the jets come directly from black holes, which can dive into nearby massive stars and devour them.
Their theory is based on recent observations by the Swift satellite which indicates that the central jet engine operates for up to 10,000 seconds - much longer than the neutrino model can explain.
Mathematicians believe that this is evidence for an electromagnetic origin of the jets, i.e. that the jets come directly from a rotating black hole, and that it is the magnetic stresses caused by the rotation that focus and accelerate the jet's flow.
For the mechanism to operate the collapsing star has to be rotating extremely rapidly. This increases the duration of the star's collapse as the gravity is opposed by strong centrifugal forces.
One particularly peculiar way of creating the right conditions involves not a collapsing star but a star invaded by its black hole companion in a binary system. The black hole acts like a parasite, diving into the normal star, spinning it with gravitational forces on its way to the star's centre, and finally eating it from the inside.
"The neutrino model cannot explain very long gamma ray bursts and the Swift observations, as the rate at which the black hole swallows the star becomes rather low quite quickly, rendering the neutrino mechanism inefficient, but the magnetic mechanism can," says Professor Komissarov from the School of Mathematics at the University of Leeds.
"Our knowledge of the amount of the matter that collects around the black hole and the rotation speed of the star allow us to calculate how long these long flashes will be – and the results correlate very well with observations from satellites," he adds.
The research is published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society and funded by the Science and Technology Facilities Council in the UK.
For more information
Professor Serguei Komissarov is available for interview, please contact the University of Leeds press office on 0113 343 4031.
The article Close Binary Progenitors of Long Gamma Ray Burstsis available to journalists on request.
Notes to editors
Serguei Komissarov is a Professor in Computational Relativistic Astrophysics in the School of Mathematics, University of Leeds.
The 2008 Research Assessment Exercise showed the University of Leeds to be the UK's eighth biggest research powerhouse. The University is one of the largest higher education institutions in the UK and a member of the Russell Group of research-intensive universities. The University's vision is to secure a place among the world's top 50 by 2015. www.leeds.ac.uk
The School of Mathematics comprises the departments of Pure Mathematics, Applied Mathematics and Statistics, is one of the largest and most active in the country. The School has over eighty members of staff including twenty five professors. www.maths.leeds.ac.uk
The Science and Technology Facilities Council ensures the UK retains its leading place on the world stage by delivering world-class science; accessing and hosting international facilities; developing innovative technologies; and increasing the socio-economic impact of its research through effective knowledge exchange.
The Council has a broad science portfolio including Astronomy, Particle Physics, Particle Astrophysics, Nuclear Physics, Space Science, Synchrotron Radiation, Neutron Sources and High Power Lasers. In addition the Council manages and operates three internationally renowned laboratories:The Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, Oxfordshire
The Council distributes public money from the Government to support scientific research.
The Council is a partner in the UK space programme, coordinated by the British National Space Centre.
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