Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


Controlled by Distant Explosions

VLT Automatically Takes Detailed Spectra of Gamma-Ray Burst Afterglows Only Minutes After Discovery

A time-series of high-resolution spectra in the optical and ultraviolet has twice been obtained just a few minutes after the detection of a gamma-ray bust explosion in a distant galaxy. The international team of astronomers responsible for these observations derived new conclusive evidence about the nature of the surroundings of these powerful explosions linked to the death of massive stars.

At 11:08 pm on 17 April 2006, an alarm rang in the Control Room of ESO's Very Large Telescope on Paranal, Chile. Fortunately, it did not announce any catastrophe on the mountain, nor with one of the world's largest telescopes. Instead, it signalled the doom of a massive star, 9.3 billion light-years away, whose final scream of agony - a powerful burst of gamma rays - had been recorded by the Swift satellite only two minutes earlier. The alarm was triggered by the activation of the VLT Rapid Response Mode, a novel system that allows for robotic observations without any human intervention, except for the alignment of the spectrograph slit.

Starting less than 10 minutes after the Swift detection, a series of spectra of increasing integration times (3, 5, 10, 20, 40 and 80 minutes) were taken with the Ultraviolet and Visual Echelle Spectrograph (UVES), mounted on Kueyen, the second Unit Telescope of the VLT.

"With the Rapid Response Mode, the VLT is directly controlled by a distant explosion," said ESO astronomer Paul Vreeswijk, who requested the observations and is lead-author of the paper reporting the results. "All I really had to do, once I was informed of the gamma-ray burst detection, was to phone the staff astronomers at the Paranal Observatory, Stefano Bagnulo and Stan Stefl, to check that everything was fine."

The first spectrum of this time series was the quickest ever taken of a gamma-ray burst afterglow, let alone with an instrument such as UVES, which is capable of splitting the afterglow light with uttermost precision. What is more, this amazing record was broken less than two months later by the same team. On 7 June 2006, the Rapid-Response Mode triggered UVES observations of the afterglow of an even more distant gamma-ray source a mere 7.5 minutes after its detection by the Swift satellite.

Gamma-ray bursts are the most intense explosions in the Universe. They are also very brief. They randomly occur in galaxies in the distant Universe and, after the energetic gamma-ray emission has ceased, they radiate an afterglow flux at longer wavelengths (i.e. lower energies). They are classified as long and short bursts according to their duration and burst energetics, but hybrid bursts have also been discovered (see ESO PR 49/06). The scientific community agrees that gamma-ray bursts are associated with the formation of black holes, but the exact nature of the bursts remains enigmatic.

Because a gamma-ray burst typically occurs at very large distances, its optical afterglow is faint. In addition, it fades very rapidly: in only a few hours the optical afterglow brightness can fade by as much as a factor of 500. This makes detailed spectral analysis possible only for a few hours after the gamma-ray detection, even with large telescopes. During the first minutes and hours after the explosion, there is also the important opportunity to observe time-dependent phenomena related to the influence of the explosion on its surroundings. The technical challenge therefore consists of obtaining high-resolution spectroscopy with 8-10 m class telescopes as quickly as possible.

"The afterglow spectra provide a wealth of information about the composition of the interstellar medium of the galaxy in which the star exploded. Some of us even hoped to characterize the gas in the vicinity of the explosion," said team member Cédric Ledoux (ESO).

The Rapid Response Mode UVES observations of 17 April 2006 allowed the astronomers to discover variable spectral features associated with a huge gas cloud in the host galaxy of the gamma-ray burst. The cloud was found to be neutral but excited by the radiation from the UV afterglow light.

From detailed modelling of these observations, the astronomers were able - for the first time - to not only pinpoint the physical mechanism responsible for the excitation of the atoms, but also determine the distance of the cloud to the GRB. This distance was found to be 5,500 light-years, which is much further out than was previously thought. Either this is a special case, or the common picture that the features seen in optical spectra originate very close to the explosion has to be revised. As a comparison, this distance of 5,500 light-years is more than one fifth of that between the Sun and the centre of our Galaxy.

"All the material in this region of space must have been ionised, that is, the atoms have been stripped of most if not all of their electrons," said co-author Alain Smette (ESO). "Were there any life in this region of the Universe, it would most probably have been eradicated."

"With the Rapid-Response Mode of the VLT, we are really looking at gamma-ray bursts as quickly as possible," said team member Andreas Jaunsen from the University of Oslo (Norway). "This is crucial if we are to unravel the mysteries of these gigantic explosions and their links with black holes!"

More Information

The two gamma-ray bursts were discovered with the NASA/ASI/PPARC Swift satellite, which is dedicated to the discovery of these powerful cosmic explosions.

Preliminary reports on these observations have been presented in GCN GRB Observation Reports 4974 and 5237. The team is composed of Paul Vreeswijk, Cédric Ledoux, Alain Smette, Andreas Kaufer and Palle Møller (ESO), Sara Ellison (University of Victoria, Canada), Andreas Jaunsen (University of Oslo, Norway), Morten Andersen (AIP, Potsdam, Germany), Andrew Fruchter (STScI, Baltimore, USA), Johan Fynbo and Jens Hjorth (Dark Cosmology Centre, Copenhagen, Denmark), Patrick Petitjean (IAP, Paris, France), Sandra Savaglio (MPE, Garching, Germany), and Ralph Wijers (Astronomical Institute, University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands). Paul Vreeswijk was at the time of this study also associated with the Universidad de Chile, Santiago.

Henri Boffin | alfa
Further information:

More articles from Physics and Astronomy:

nachricht Move over, lasers: Scientists can now create holograms from neutrons, too
21.10.2016 | National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)

nachricht Finding the lightest superdeformed triaxial atomic nucleus
20.10.2016 | The Henryk Niewodniczanski Institute of Nuclear Physics Polish Academy of Sciences

All articles from Physics and Astronomy >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: New 3-D wiring technique brings scalable quantum computers closer to reality

Researchers from the Institute for Quantum Computing (IQC) at the University of Waterloo led the development of a new extensible wiring technique capable of controlling superconducting quantum bits, representing a significant step towards to the realization of a scalable quantum computer.

"The quantum socket is a wiring method that uses three-dimensional wires based on spring-loaded pins to address individual qubits," said Jeremy Béjanin, a PhD...

Im Focus: Scientists develop a semiconductor nanocomposite material that moves in response to light

In a paper in Scientific Reports, a research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute describes a novel light-activated phenomenon that could become the basis for applications as diverse as microscopic robotic grippers and more efficient solar cells.

A research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) has developed a revolutionary, light-activated semiconductor nanocomposite material that can be used...

Im Focus: Diamonds aren't forever: Sandia, Harvard team create first quantum computer bridge

By forcefully embedding two silicon atoms in a diamond matrix, Sandia researchers have demonstrated for the first time on a single chip all the components needed to create a quantum bridge to link quantum computers together.

"People have already built small quantum computers," says Sandia researcher Ryan Camacho. "Maybe the first useful one won't be a single giant quantum computer...

Im Focus: New Products - Highlights of COMPAMED 2016

COMPAMED has become the leading international marketplace for suppliers of medical manufacturing. The trade fair, which takes place every November and is co-located to MEDICA in Dusseldorf, has been steadily growing over the past years and shows that medical technology remains a rapidly growing market.

In 2016, the joint pavilion by the IVAM Microtechnology Network, the Product Market “High-tech for Medical Devices”, will be located in Hall 8a again and will...

Im Focus: Ultra-thin ferroelectric material for next-generation electronics

'Ferroelectric' materials can switch between different states of electrical polarization in response to an external electric field. This flexibility means they show promise for many applications, for example in electronic devices and computer memory. Current ferroelectric materials are highly valued for their thermal and chemical stability and rapid electro-mechanical responses, but creating a material that is scalable down to the tiny sizes needed for technologies like silicon-based semiconductors (Si-based CMOS) has proven challenging.

Now, Hiroshi Funakubo and co-workers at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, in collaboration with researchers across Japan, have conducted experiments to...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Event News

#IC2S2: When Social Science meets Computer Science - GESIS will host the IC2S2 conference 2017

14.10.2016 | Event News

Agricultural Trade Developments and Potentials in Central Asia and the South Caucasus

14.10.2016 | Event News

World Health Summit – Day Three: A Call to Action

12.10.2016 | Event News

Latest News

Resolving the mystery of preeclampsia

21.10.2016 | Health and Medicine

Stanford researchers create new special-purpose computer that may someday save us billions

21.10.2016 | Information Technology

From ancient fossils to future cars

21.10.2016 | Materials Sciences

More VideoLinks >>>