Cosmic Paparazzi

By | Posted April 8, 2008
Posted in: Physical Science Blog
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Are you a stargazer? If you just happened to be staring up at the constellation Bootes (the “Bear Watcher”) at 2:12 AM Eastern Standard Time on March 19th and you saw a brief flash, turns out you weren’t hallucinating. In fact, you would have seen farther into space and farther back into time than unaided human eyes ever have.

NASA’s Swift satellite, whose job it is to scan the heavens twenty-four seven, confirmed this celestial event was a massive Gamma Ray Burst (GRB). GRBs are relatively common, with one flashbulbing us per day.

Scientists think GRBs occur when a massive star runs out of nuclear fuel and explodes in a cataclysmic supernova. These death throes spawn a black hole that then gobbles up the rest of the star. According to NASA’s press release, the afterglow from this star’s demise was “2.5 million times more luminous than the most luminous supernova ever recorded, making it the most intrinsically bright object ever observed by humans in the universe.”

In terms of sheer amounts of energy, GRB’s are pretty extreme as well. “Not only do GBR’s outshine their entire galaxy, which is made up of hundreds of billions of stars, but for a brief moment they rival the total energy output of the universe,” says Andrew MacFayden, an assistant professor of physics at New York University.

Astronomers later determined that this GRB originated some 7.5 billion light years away – that is more than halfway across the known cosmos! In other words, the bright blip that appeared in Earth’s nighttime sky was from an event that happened before the planet had even formed. What’s more, the stellar combustion occurred when the universe itself was only half as old as it is now.

Actual bits of the kabloo-ied megastar didn’t blast Earth – instead, we just got paparrazzied by the distant pyrotechnics. “What is transmitted in this event are extremely energetic photona,” or light particles, says Glennys Farrar, also a professor of physics at New York University.

All in all, in a word . . . rad.

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