Scientists just watched one of the most powerful cosmic explosions ever – IGN

Scientists have detected a very powerful explosion of cosmic radiation – known as a gamma-ray burst – which likely occurred when a massive star died and turned into a completely spent black hole.

Gamma ray bursts (GRBs) are among the most energetic cosmic eruptions to light up the universe since the Big Bang event they are believed to have created. Astronomers believe that the majority of GRBs occur when a truly massive star collapses inward at the end of its life, after running out of material to sustain the nuclear fusion reaction in its core.

This stunning implosion heralds the birth of a black hole, as the newly singular unit releases jets of gamma radiation that travel at nearly the speed of light, and can shine a million trillion times (yes, a million trillion) brighter than the Sun. A stream of X-rays is also released when fast-moving jets collide with clouds of gas emanating from the dead star.

On Sunday, October 9, the detectors aboard NASA’s fleet of orbiting spacecraft lit up when a powerful wave of gamma rays and X-rays swept across the solar system, indicating a very powerful gamma-ray burst.

After the initial discovery of the event – designated GRB 221009A – astronomers around the world raced to train several of the world’s most powerful telescopes in the aftermath of the explosion. A group of orbiting spacecraft have also joined the effort, including NASA’s Fermi Gamma Ray Space Telescope and Neil Gehrells Swift Observatory.

Together, excited robotic eyes were able to capture the sophisticated optical signature of the explosion at optical, infrared, gamma and X-ray wavelengths. The signal originated about 2.4 billion light-years from Earth in the direction of the constellation Sagitta, and lasted for a few hundred seconds. According to these early observations, GRB 221009A is the brightest GRB ever recorded since the advent of modern science, potentially up to 10 times higher.

The afterglow image of GRB 221009A as taken by the Swift X-ray Telescope (Credit: NASA/Swift/A. Beardmore (University of Leicester))

The afterglow image of GRB 221009A as taken by the Swift X-ray Telescope (Credit: NASA/Swift/A. Beardmore (University of Leicester))

“Since most other long GRB explosions are caused by the collapse of a massive star, we have every reason to believe we will find direct evidence of a supernova,” explains Ph.D. Student Gillian Rastingad of Northwestern University, Illinois, who helped film the event. “But that would take more work and time to confirm, and the universe could always surprise us.”

However, there is an hour in the scientific community’s observations of GRB 221009A – as in just over a month, the glare of our Sun will temporarily obscure a gamma-ray source.

When it becomes visible again early next year, astronomers will be back to work to unlock the secrets of how such a powerful outburst of light came about.

Stay tuned to IGN’s science page to keep up with the strange world of science.

Anthony Wood is a freelance science writer at IGN

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