Known as a gamma-ray burst, the intense light captured in the night sky resulted from one of the biggest and hottest explosions in the universe, occurring shortly after the Big Bang.
Intense light from the enormous explosion of a star more than 12 billion years ago — shortly after the Big Bang — recently reached Earth and was visible in the sky.
Known as a gamma-ray burst, light from the rare, high-energy explosion traveled for 12.1 billion years before it was detected and observed by a telescope, ROTSE-IIIb, owned by Southern Methodist University, Dallas.
Gamma-ray bursts are believed to be the catastrophic collapse of a star at the end of its life. SMU physicists report that their telescope was the first on the ground to observe the burst and to capture an image, said Farley Ferrante, a graduate student in SMU’s Department of Physics, who monitored the observations along with two astronomers in Turkey and Hawaii.
Gamma-ray bursts are not well understood by astronomers, but they are considered important, Ferrante said.
“As NASA points out, gamma-ray bursts are the most powerful explosions in the universe since the Big Bang,” he said. “These bursts release more energy in 10 seconds than our Earth’s sun during its entire expected lifespan of 10 billion years.”
Some of these gamma-ray bursts appear to be related to supernovae, and correspond to the end-of-life of a massive star, said Robert Kehoe, physics professor and leader of the SMU astronomy team.
“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.
Scientists weren’t able to detect optical light from gamma-ray bursts until the late 1990s, when telescope technology improved. Among all lights in the electromagnetic spectrum, gamma rays have the shortest wavelengths and are visible only using special detectors.
Gamma-ray bursts result from hot stars that measure as enormous as 50 solar masses. The explosion occurs when the stars run out of fuel and collapse in on themselves, forming black holes.
Outer layers detonate, shooting out material along the rotation axis in powerful, high-energy jets that include gamma radiation.
As the gamma radiation declines, the explosion produces an afterglow of visible optical light. The light, in turn, fades very quickly, said Kehoe. Physicists calculate the distance of the explosion based on the shifting wavelength of the light, or redshift.
“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.”
Observational data from gamma-ray bursts allows scientists to understand structure of the early universe
To put into context the age of the new gamma-ray burst discoveries, Kehoe and Ferrante point out that the Big Bang occurred 13.81 billion years ago. GRB 140419A is at a red shift of 3.96, Ferrante said.
Armed with images of the burst, astronomers can analyze the observational data to draw further conclusions about the structure of the early universe.
“At the time of this gamma-ray burst’s explosion, the universe looked vastly different than it does now,” Kehoe said. “It was an early stage of galaxy formation. There weren’t heavy elements to make Earth-like planets. So this is a glimpse at the early universe. Observing gamma-ray bursts is important for gaining information about the early universe.”
GRB 140419A’s brightness, measured by its ability to be seen by someone on Earth, was of the 12th magnitude, Kehoe said, indicating it was only 10 times dimmer than what is visible through binoculars, and only 200 times dimmer than the human eye can see, Kehoe said.
“The difference in brightness is about the same as between the brightest star you can see in the sky, and the dimmest you can see with the naked eye on a clear, dark night,” Kehoe said. “Considering this thing was at the edge of the visible universe, that’s an extreme explosion. That was something big. Really big.”
SMU telescope responded to NASA satellite’s detection and notification
SMU’s Robotic Optical Transient Search Experiment (ROTSE) IIIb is a robotic telescope. It is part of a network of ground telescopes responsive to a NASA satellite that is central to the space agency’s Swift Gamma-Ray Burst Mission. Images of the gamma-ray bursts are at http://bit.ly/1kKZeh5.
When the Swift satellite detects a gamma-ray burst, it instantly relays the location. Telescopes around the world, such as SMU’s ROTSE-IIIb, swing into action to observe the burst’s afterglow and capture images, said Govinda Dhungana, an SMU graduate student who participated in the gamma-ray burst research.
SMU’s ROTSE-IIIb observes optical emission from several gamma-ray bursts each year. It observed GRB 140419A just 55 seconds after the burst was detected by Swift.
Just days later, ROTSE-IIIb observed and reported a second rare and distant gamma-ray burst, GRB 140423A, at 3:30 a.m. April 23. The redshift of that burst corresponds to a look back in time of 11.8 billion years. ROTSE-IIIb observed it 51 seconds after the burst was detected by Swift.
“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.
Ferrante, the first to check observations on GRB 140423A, is first-author on that gamma-ray burst. Tolga Guver, associate professor in the Department of Astronomy and Space Sciences at Istanbul University, Turkey, is second author. On GRB 140419A, Guver is first author and Ferrante is second.
The research is funded by the Texas Space Grant Consortium, an affiliate of NASA. — Margaret Allen
SMU is a nationally ranked private university in Dallas founded 100 years ago. Today, SMU enrolls nearly 11,000 students who benefit from the academic opportunities and international reach of seven degree-granting schools. For more information see www.smu.edu.
SMU has an uplink facility located on campus for live TV, radio, or online interviews. To speak with an SMU expert or book an SMU guest in the studio, call SMU News & Communications at 214-768-7650.
Margaret Allen | Eurek Alert!
NASA spacecraft investigate clues in radiation belts
28.03.2017 | NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center
Researchers create artificial materials atom-by-atom
28.03.2017 | Aalto University
The Institute of Semiconductor Technology and the Institute of Physical and Theoretical Chemistry, both members of the Laboratory for Emerging Nanometrology (LENA), at Technische Universität Braunschweig are partners in a new European research project entitled ChipScope, which aims to develop a completely new and extremely small optical microscope capable of observing the interior of living cells in real time. A consortium of 7 partners from 5 countries will tackle this issue with very ambitious objectives during a four-year research program.
To demonstrate the usefulness of this new scientific tool, at the end of the project the developed chip-sized microscope will be used to observe in real-time...
Astronomers from Bonn and Tautenburg in Thuringia (Germany) used the 100-m radio telescope at Effelsberg to observe several galaxy clusters. At the edges of these large accumulations of dark matter, stellar systems (galaxies), hot gas, and charged particles, they found magnetic fields that are exceptionally ordered over distances of many million light years. This makes them the most extended magnetic fields in the universe known so far.
The results will be published on March 22 in the journal „Astronomy & Astrophysics“.
Galaxy clusters are the largest gravitationally bound structures in the universe. With a typical extent of about 10 million light years, i.e. 100 times the...
Researchers at the Goethe University Frankfurt, together with partners from the University of Tübingen in Germany and Queen Mary University as well as Francis Crick Institute from London (UK) have developed a novel technology to decipher the secret ubiquitin code.
Ubiquitin is a small protein that can be linked to other cellular proteins, thereby controlling and modulating their functions. The attachment occurs in many...
In the eternal search for next generation high-efficiency solar cells and LEDs, scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory and their partners are creating...
Silicon nanosheets are thin, two-dimensional layers with exceptional optoelectronic properties very similar to those of graphene. Albeit, the nanosheets are less stable. Now researchers at the Technical University of Munich (TUM) have, for the first time ever, produced a composite material combining silicon nanosheets and a polymer that is both UV-resistant and easy to process. This brings the scientists a significant step closer to industrial applications like flexible displays and photosensors.
Silicon nanosheets are thin, two-dimensional layers with exceptional optoelectronic properties very similar to those of graphene. Albeit, the nanosheets are...
20.03.2017 | Event News
14.03.2017 | Event News
07.03.2017 | Event News
28.03.2017 | Life Sciences
28.03.2017 | Information Technology
28.03.2017 | Physics and Astronomy