Astronomers around the world recorded late last year the brightest explosion ever of high-energy X-rays and gamma rays - a split-second flash from the other side of our galaxy that was strong enough to affect the Earth’s atmosphere.
The flash, called a soft gamma repeater flare, reached Earth on Dec. 27 and was detected by at least 15 satellites and spacecraft between Earth and Saturn, swamping most of their detectors. Some of the best observations were recorded by the Reuven Ramaty High Energy Solar Spectroscopic Imager (RHESSI), a NASA/University of California, Berkeley, satellite launched in 2002 to study gamma-ray emissions from solar flares. "It was the mother of all magnetic flares - a true monster," said Kevin Hurley, a research physicist at UC Berkeley’s Space Sciences Laboratory who leads a major international team studying the event.
Thought to be a mighty cataclysm in a super-dense, highly magnetized star called a magnetar, it emitted as much energy in two-tenths of a second as the sun gives off in 250,000 years. Its intrinsic power was a thousand times greater than the power of all other stars in the galaxy put together, and ten thousand times brighter than the brightest supernova. "This is a key event for understanding magnetars," said Robert C. Duncan of the University of Texas at Austin, who along with Christopher Thompson of the Canadian Institute of Theoretical Astrophysics, originally proposed and developed the magnetar theory. They both worked with Hurley’s team to understand the immense power of the Dec. 27 flare, which exceeded all previous magnetar outbursts in our galaxy by more than 100. The team’s observations and analysis are summarized in a paper that has been submitted for publication in the journal Nature.
Robert Sanders | EurekAlert!
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