Using a robotic telescope at the ESO La Silla Observatory, astronomers have for the first time measured the velocity of the explosions known as gamma-ray bursts. The material is travelling at the extraordinary speed of more than 99.999% of the velocity of light, the maximum speed limit in the Universe.
"With the development of fast-slewing ground-based telescopes such as the 0.6-m REM telescope at ESO La Silla, we can now study in great detail the very first moments following these cosmic catastrophes," says Emilio Molinari, leader of the team that made the discovery.
Gamma-ray bursts (GRBs) are powerful explosions occurring in distant galaxies, that often signal the death of stars. They are so bright that, for a brief moment, they almost rival the whole Universe in luminosity. They last, however, for only a very short time, from less than a second to a few minutes. Astronomers have long known that, in order to emit such incredible power in so little time, the exploding material must be moving at a speed comparable with that of light, namely 300 000 km per second. By studying the temporal evolution of the burst luminosity, it has now been possible for the first time to precisely measure this velocity.
Gamma-ray bursts, which are unseen by our eyes, are discovered by artificial satellites. The collision of the gamma-ray burst jets into the surrounding gas generates an afterglow visible in the optical and near-infrared that can radiate for several weeks. An array of robotic telescopes were built on the ground, ready to catch this vanishing emission (see e.g. ESO 17/07). On 18 April and 7 June 2006, the NASA/PPARC/ASI Swift satellite detected two bright gamma-ray bursts. In a matter of a few seconds, their position was transmitted to the ground, and the REM telescope began automatically to observe the two GRB fields, detecting the near-infrared afterglows, and monitored the evolution of their luminosity as a function of time (the light curve). The small size of the telescope is compensated by its rapidity of slewing, which allowed astronomers to begin observations very soon after each GRB's detection (39 and 41 seconds after the alert, respectively), and to monitor the very early stages of their light curve.
The two gamma-ray bursts were located 9.3 and 11.5 billion light-years away, respectively.
For both events, the afterglow light curve initially rose, then reached a peak, and eventually started to decline, as is typical of GRB afterglows. The peak is, however, only rarely detected. Its determination is very important, since it allows a direct measurement of the expansion velocity of the explosion of the material. For both bursts, the velocity turns out to be very close to the speed of light, precisely 99.9997% of this value. Scientists use a special number, called the Lorentz factor, to express these high velocities. Objects moving much slower than light have a Lorentz factor of about 1, while for the two GRBs it is about 400.
"Matter is thus moving with a speed that is only different from that of light by three parts in a million," says Stefano Covino, co-author of the study. "While single particles in the Universe can be accelerated to still larger velocities - i.e. much larger Lorentz factors - one has to realise that in the present cases, it is the equivalent of about 200 times the mass of the Earth that acquired this incredible speed."
"You certainly wouldn't like to be in the way," adds team member Susanna Vergani.
The measurement of the Lorentz factor is an important step in understanding gamma-ray burst explosions. This is in fact one of the fundamental parameters of the theory which tries to explain these gigantic explosions, and up to now it was only poorly determined.
"The next question is which kind of 'engine' can accelerate matter to such enormous speeds," says Covino.
Henri Boffin | alfa
Structured light and nanomaterials open new ways to tailor light at the nanoscale
23.04.2018 | Academy of Finland
On the shape of the 'petal' for the dissipation curve
23.04.2018 | Lobachevsky University
Physicists at the Laboratory for Attosecond Physics, which is jointly run by Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität and the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics, have developed a high-power laser system that generates ultrashort pulses of light covering a large share of the mid-infrared spectrum. The researchers envisage a wide range of applications for the technology – in the early diagnosis of cancer, for instance.
Molecules are the building blocks of life. Like all other organisms, we are made of them. They control our biorhythm, and they can also reflect our state of...
University of Connecticut researchers have created a biodegradable composite made of silk fibers that can be used to repair broken load-bearing bones without the complications sometimes presented by other materials.
Repairing major load-bearing bones such as those in the leg can be a long and uncomfortable process.
Study published in the journal ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces is the outcome of an international effort that included teams from Dresden and Berlin in Germany, and the US.
Scientists at the Helmholtz-Zentrum Dresden-Rossendorf (HZDR) together with colleagues from the Helmholtz-Zentrum Berlin (HZB) and the University of Virginia...
Novel highly efficient and brilliant gamma-ray source: Based on model calculations, physicists of the Max PIanck Institute for Nuclear Physics in Heidelberg propose a novel method for an efficient high-brilliance gamma-ray source. A giant collimated gamma-ray pulse is generated from the interaction of a dense ultra-relativistic electron beam with a thin solid conductor. Energetic gamma-rays are copiously produced as the electron beam splits into filaments while propagating across the conductor. The resulting gamma-ray energy and flux enable novel experiments in nuclear and fundamental physics.
The typical wavelength of light interacting with an object of the microcosm scales with the size of this object. For atoms, this ranges from visible light to...
Stable joint cartilage can be produced from adult stem cells originating from bone marrow. This is made possible by inducing specific molecular processes occurring during embryonic cartilage formation, as researchers from the University and University Hospital of Basel report in the scientific journal PNAS.
Certain mesenchymal stem/stromal cells from the bone marrow of adults are considered extremely promising for skeletal tissue regeneration. These adult stem...
13.04.2018 | Event News
12.04.2018 | Event News
09.04.2018 | Event News
23.04.2018 | Physics and Astronomy
23.04.2018 | Physics and Astronomy
23.04.2018 | Trade Fair News