Black hole birth captured by cosmic voyeurs

Nov 21, 2013
Los Alamos National Laboratory astrophysicist Tom Vestrand poses with a telescope array that is part of the RAPTOR (RAPid Telescopes for Optical Response) system. RAPTOR is an intelligent visual system that scans the skies for optical anomalies and zeroes in on them when it detects them. This unique capability allowed the system to witness the rare birth of a black hole in the constellation Leo recently. Credit: Los Alamos National Laboratory

Intelligent telescopes designed by Los Alamos National Laboratory got a front row seat recently for an unusual birth.

"Los Alamos' RAPTOR telescopes in New Mexico and Hawaii received a very bright cosmic birth announcement for a black hole on April 27," said astrophysicist Tom Vestrand, lead author of a paper appearing today in the journal Science that highlights the unusual event.

"This was the burst of the century," said Los Alamos co-author James Wren. "It's the biggest, brightest one to happen in at least 20 years, and maybe even longer than that."

The RAPTOR (RAPid Telescopes for Optical Response) system is a network of small robotic observatories that scan the skies for optical anomalies such as flashes emanating from a star in its death throes as it collapses and becomes a black hole—an object so dense that not even light can escape its gravity field. This birth announcement arrived from the constellation Leo in the form of an exceptionally bright flash of visible light that accompanied a powerful burst of cosmic gamma-ray emissions.

What made such an extremely rare event even more spectacular for scientists, however, is that, in addition to the RAPTOR sighting, it was witnessed by an armada of instruments—including gamma-ray and X-ray detectors aboard NASA's Fermi, NuSTAR and Swift satellites. While the NASA instruments recorded some of the highest-energy gamma-ray bursts ever measured from such an event, RAPTOR noticed that the massive and violent transformation of a star into a black hole yielded a lingering "afterglow" that faded in lock-step with the highest energy gamma-rays.

Monster gamma-ray burst in our cosmic neighborhood
The gamma-ray burst is extremely bright and is the most luminous object in the field, as seen in the image from Swift. All the other luminous objects seen in the image are stars from our own galaxy, while the gamma-ray burst is millions of times farther away. This section shows an area of the sky that roughly corresponds to a quarter the size of the full moon. Credit: Swift Satellite

"This afterglow is interesting to see," said paper co-author Przemek Wozniak of Los Alamos's Intelligence and Space Research Division. "We normally see a flash associated with the beginning of an event, analogous to the bright flash that you would see coinciding with the explosion of a firecracker. This afterglow may be somewhat analogous to the embers that you might be able to see lingering after your firecracker has exploded. It is the link between the optical phenomenon and the gamma-rays that we haven't seen before, and that's what makes this display extremely exciting."

All things considered, the event was among the brightest and most energetic of its type ever witnessed.

Monster gamma-ray burst in our cosmic neighborhood
This is a close-up of the gamma-ray burst, taken by the ultraviolet/optical telescope on the Swift satellite. Credit: Swift Satellite

"This was a Rosetta-Stone event that illuminates so many things—literally," Vestrand said. "We were very fortunate to have all of the NASA and ground-based instruments seeing it at the same time. We had all the assets in place to collect a very detailed data set. These are data that astrophysicists will be looking at for a long time to come because we have a detailed record of the event as it unfolded."

Monster gamma-ray burst in our cosmic neighborhood
The Swift satellite has three instruments on board. They work together to get as much information about each gamma-ray burst as possible. The Burst Alert Telescope is a monitoring telescope, and the first to detect a burst. The X-ray telescope and the ultraviolet/optical telescope have a coordinated field of view, so the radiation can be observed in all three wavelengths together. Credit: Swift Satellite

Already the event, labeled GRB 130427A by astrophysicists, is testing some long-held assumptions about the nature of the universe. For example, scientists recorded energy levels for gamma rays that are higher than what some researchers thought theoretically possible. This revelation may require physicists to modify existing theories about radiation. No doubt, the data set could yield more surprises in the future, Vestrand said.

Explore further: Can astronomy explain the biblical Star of Bethlehem?

More information: "The Bright Optical Flash and Afterglow from the Gamma-Ray Burst GRB 130427A," by W.T. Vestrand et al. Science, 2013.

Related Stories

Fermi and Swift see 'shockingly bright' burst

May 03, 2013

A record-setting blast of gamma rays from a dying star in a distant galaxy has wowed astronomers around the world. The eruption, which is classified as a gamma-ray burst, or GRB, and designated GRB 130427A, ...

Earth's gold came from colliding dead stars

Jul 17, 2013

We value gold for many reasons: its beauty, its usefulness as jewelry, and its rarity. Gold is rare on Earth in part because it's also rare in the universe. Unlike elements like carbon or iron, it cannot ...

Recommended for you

Can astronomy explain the biblical Star of Bethlehem?

Dec 24, 2014

Bright stars top Christmas trees in Christian homes around much of the world. The faithful sing about the Star of Wonder that guided the wise men to a manger in the little town of Bethlehem, where Jesus was ...

Hubbles spies the beautiful galaxy IC 335

Dec 24, 2014

This new NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image shows the galaxy IC 335 in front of a backdrop of distant galaxies. IC 335 is part of a galaxy group containing three other galaxies, and located in the Fornax ...

Image: Multicoloured view of supernova remnant

Dec 22, 2014

Most celestial events unfold over thousands of years or more, making it impossible to follow their evolution on human timescales. Supernovas are notable exceptions, the powerful stellar explosions that make ...

Ultra-luminous X-ray sources in starburst galaxies

Dec 22, 2014

Ultra-luminous X-ray sources (ULXs) are point sources in the sky that are so bright in X-rays that each emits more radiation than a million suns emit at all wavelengths. ULXs are rare. Most galaxies (including ...

When a bright light fades

Dec 22, 2014

Astronomer Charles Telesco is primarily interested in the creation of planets and stars. So, when the University of Florida's giant telescope was pointed at a star undergoing a magnificent and explosive death, ...

User comments : 8

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

NikFromNYC
1 / 5 (7) Nov 22, 2013
Dude should be on TV. Damn cool scientist photo.
yyz
5 / 5 (2) Nov 22, 2013
GRB 130427A was a relatively nearby (z=0.34) event that nevertheless peaked in the optical at 7th magnitude, just below the naked-eye limit. The total output of the GRB is estimated at around 10^54 erg. Quite impressive to see this event in such (multiwavelength) detail.

A preprint of "The Bright Optical Flash and Afterglow from the Gamma-Ray Burst GRB 130427A" is available here: http://arxiv.org/abs/1311.5489

Related papers:

http://arxiv.org/abs/1311.5254

http://arxiv.org/abs/1311.5245
cantdrive85
1 / 5 (10) Nov 22, 2013
A bright flash, followed by an afterglow? Sounds alot like lightning.
http://www.thunde...7grb.htm
Q-Star
3 / 5 (2) Nov 22, 2013
A bright flash, followed by an afterglow? Sounds alot like lightning.
http://www.thunde...7grb.htm


But isn't he at Los Alamos? Doesn't that mean his work is the sacred gospel? The most recent word from the Burning Bush of Los Alamos?
cantdrive85
1 / 5 (9) Nov 22, 2013
He obviously isn't aware of Peratt's PIC simulations of interacting plasmas, such knowledge would preclude any assumptions of black hole nonsense. The Burning Bush (or Plasma Bush, fire is plasma) of LANL still has a small following, specialization and compartmentalization of science exists even within the same laboratory.
Q-Star
5 / 5 (2) Nov 22, 2013
He obviously isn't aware of Peratt's PIC simulations of interacting plasmas, such knowledge would preclude any assumptions of black hole nonsense.


Oh, I suspect he is aware, how could he not be?

The Burning Bush (or Plasma Bush, fire is plasma) of LANL still has a small following, specialization and compartmentalization of science exists even within the same laboratory.


And growing smaller. The compartment needed to hold them probably isn't much larger than supply closet.
yyz
5 / 5 (5) Nov 22, 2013
It's interesting that while gamma ray bursts have been known for over 40 years, there is not a single published paper that examines at length a particular GRB from a EU/PC perspective! Plenty of blog entries and Youtube videos (e.g. cantdrive's link), but no published science. Over 40 years of ignoring a well studied celestial phenomena.

Way to go EU/PC "science".
Lurker2358
1 / 5 (9) Nov 23, 2013
I calculate that if an event that large happened within 32 light years, it would easily produce a luminosity equal to that of the Sun upon the earth's surface, per meter square. Thus it could easily incinerate all life on our planet, by roughly doubling the heating on the Earth.

Since I double you need to double the amount of radiation upon the Earth in order to destroy all life on the Earth, it is likely that the true threshold for death of all life on Earth lies yeat another 4 to 8 times father away than that.

if it was 8 times farther way, or 256 light years, it would still easily produce a 5C increase in Earth's mean surface temperature.

Therefore, I doubt an event this size has ever happened within a distance of 250 light years in the entire history of the Earth. If it had, life wouldn't exist here.
Zephir_fan
Nov 23, 2013
This comment has been removed by a moderator.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.