Fermi Gamma-Ray Space Telescope Sees Most Extreme Gamma-Ray Blast Ever

Feb 19, 2009
GRB 080916C's X-ray afterglow appears orange and yellow in this view that merges images from Swift's UltraViolet/Optical and X-ray telescopes. (Image courtesy NASA/Swift/Stefan Immler)

(PhysOrg.com) -- With the greatest total energy, the fastest motions, and the highest-energy initial emissions ever before seen, a gamma-ray burst recently observed by the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope is one for the record books. The spectacular blast, which also raises new questions about gamma-ray bursts, was discovered by the FGST's Large Area Telescope, a collaboration among NASA, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science and international partners.

"Burst emissions at these energies are still poorly understood, and Fermi is giving us the tools to figure them out," says Large Area Telescope Principal Investigator Peter Michelson, a Stanford University physics professor affiliated with the Department of Energy's SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory.

The explosion, designated GRB 080916C, occurred at 7:13 p.m. EDT Sept. 15 (after midnight GMT, Sept. 16) in the constellation Carina. Fermi's other instrument, the Gamma-ray Burst Monitor (GBM), simultaneously recorded the event. Together, the two instruments provide a view of the blast's gamma-ray emission from energies ranging from 3,000 to more than 5 billion times that of visible light.

A team led by Jochen Greiner at the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Garching, Germany, established that the blast occurred 12.2 billion light-years away using the Gamma-Ray Burst Optical/Near-Infrared Detector (GROND) on the 2.2-meter telescope at the European Southern Observatory in La Silla, Chile.

"Already, this was an exciting burst," says Julie McEnery, a Fermi deputy project scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. "But with the GROND team's distance, it went from exciting to extraordinary."

With the distance in hand, FGST team members showed that the blast exceeded the power of nearly 9,000 ordinary supernovae and that the gas bullets emitting the initial gamma rays must have moved at no less than 99.9999 percent the speed of light. This burst's tremendous power and speed make it the most extreme recorded to date.

The burst is not only spectacular but also enigmatic: a curious time delay separates its highest-energy emissions from its lowest. Such a time lag has been seen clearly in only one earlier burst, and researchers have several explanations for why it may exist.

The environment around a gamma-ray burst is extremely complicated. Although the specifics vary from burst to burst, the surrounding area generally includes the remnants of a stellar explosion, a magnetic field, a black hole and various particles accelerated by the black hole's gravitational pull, as well as huge amounts of radiation. It is possible that the delays could be explained by the structure of this environment, with the low- and high-energy gamma rays "coming from different parts of the jet or [being] created through a different mechanism," Michelson says.

Another, far more speculative theory posits that perhaps time lags result not from anything in the environment around the black hole, but from the gamma rays' long journey from the black hole to our telescopes. If the theorized idea of quantum gravity is correct, then at its smallest scale space is not a smooth medium but a tumultuous, boiling froth of "quantum foam." Lower-energy (and thus lighter) gamma rays would travel faster through this foam than higher-energy (and thus heavier) gamma rays. Over the course of 12.2 billion light years, this very small effect could add up to a significant delay.

The FGST results provide the strongest test to date of the speed of light's consistency at these extreme energies. As FGST observes more gamma-ray bursts, researchers can look for time lags that vary with respect to the bursts. If the quantum gravity effect is present, time lags should vary in relation to the distance. If the environment around the burst origin is the cause, the lag should stay relatively constant no matter how far away the burst occurred.

"This one burst raises all sorts of questions," Michelson says. "In a few years, we'll have a fairly good sample of bursts, and may have some answers."

The team's results appear in the February 19 edition of Science Express.

Gamma-ray bursts are the universe's most luminous explosions. Astronomers believe most occur when exotic massive stars run out of nuclear fuel. As a star's core collapses into a black hole, jets of material—powered by processes not yet fully understood—blast outward at nearly the speed of light. The jets bore all the way through the collapsing star and continue into space, where they interact with gas previously shed by the star. This generates bright afterglows that fade with time.

Provided by SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

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User comments : 13

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nano999
4.3 / 5 (6) Feb 19, 2009
New rule: The "enlarge" picture has to actually be bigger than the original.
Bob_B
5 / 5 (5) Feb 19, 2009
Note to self: enlarge using nose on monitor method.
Valentiinro
4 / 5 (4) Feb 19, 2009
Note to self: enlarge using nose on monitor method.

Aha! It works!

Of course in these pixelated astronomy pictures it doesn't really matter how big you enlarge it, you still only have the few pixels of data the telescope started with whatever you could squeeze out of it with analysis.
yyz
5 / 5 (4) Feb 19, 2009
What a fascinating observation by Fermi. I always like discoveries that raise more questions than answers, since these events are usually trying to tell us something deep( i.e. Hanny's Voorwerp and the recently discovered UV dwarf galaxies in the Leo Ring ). I'm curious if any air shower arrays may have also imaged this event since even more energetic radiation and-or neutrally charged particles may also have been produced.
brant
2 / 5 (4) Feb 19, 2009
There is another model that could account for the time delay without invoking blackholes, quantum foam or other metaphysical entities....

z-pinch.
bluehigh
3.3 / 5 (8) Feb 19, 2009
Another civilisation trying to detect the Higgs particle in a large hadron collider!
yep
2 / 5 (4) Feb 20, 2009
This is a great site for any person interested in astronomy/cosmology
http://www.thunde...bles.htm
hundreds of pictures and articles.
denijane
2.3 / 5 (3) Feb 20, 2009
Oh, when will they abandon the idea of a black hole at the center?! It's so dead already, i wonder why they even bother discussing it.
jonnyboy
3 / 5 (2) Feb 20, 2009
The explosion, designated GRB 080916C, occurred at 7:13 p.m. EDT Sept. 15 (after midnight GMT, Sept. 16) in the constellation Carina.

sure it did, plus or minus 12.2 billion years or so
bluehigh
1 / 5 (1) Feb 21, 2009
okay, then light travelled 12.2 billion years in all directions from the explosion. so now I have a universe size of at least 24.4 billion light years in at least one direction from earth. No?

magpies
1 / 5 (1) Feb 22, 2009
bluehigh that is correct. But think about what the darkness you can see in the sky means.
Ethelred
not rated yet Feb 23, 2009
No?


No, is indeed the correct answer. Our universe doesn't reach much past 12.2 GLY. To explain, based on what is presently known and using something resembling standard theories:

The Universe is approximately 13 and bit billion years old based on the Cosmic Background Explorer data. If it has been expanding at the speed of light at its edges and we are at the center (which we must be in an uniformly expanding universe) than the universe is 13 and bit GLY in radius for EVERYONE. Of course there could be more to it than we can see but the usual definition of the Universe is what we can see.

Now if we use a different definition than you have a point. At least we could infer that the universe must be at least 24GLY in radius if we define the Universe as all that came out of the Big Bang. Nothing wrong with that definition but we can't test it.

Ethelred
yep
1 / 5 (1) Feb 23, 2009
The big bang is the way of the Dodo
http://www.holosc...d4fsrk24&keywords=cosmic background explorer#dest