Record-breaking X-ray blast briefly blinds space observatory

Jul 14, 2010 by Barbara K. Kennedy
Record-breaking X-ray blast briefly blinds space observatory
The brightest gamma-ray burst ever seen in X-rays temporarily blinded Swift's X-ray Telescope on 21 June 2010. This image merges the X-rays (red to yellow) with the same view from Swift's Ultraviolet/Optical Telescope, which showed nothing extraordinary. (The image is 5 arcminutes across.) Credit: NASA/Swift/Stefan Immler

A blast of the brightest X-rays ever detected from beyond our Milky Way galaxy's neighborhood temporarily blinded the X-ray eye on NASA's Swift space observatory earlier this summer, astronomers now report. The X-rays traveled through space for 5-billion years before slamming into and overwhelming Swift's X-ray Telescope on 21 June. The blindingly bright blast came from a gamma-ray burst, a violent eruption of energy from the explosion of a massive star morphing into a new black hole.

"This is by far the brightest light source ever seen in X-ray wavelengths at cosmological distances," said David Burrows, senior scientist and professor of astronomy and astrophysics at Penn State University and the lead scientist for Swift's X-ray Telescope (XRT).

Although the was designed specifically to study gamma-ray bursts, the instrument was not designed to handle an X-ray blast this bright. "The intensity of these X-rays was unexpected and unprecedented" said Neil Gehrels, Swift's principal investigator at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. He said the burst, named GRB 100621A, is the brightest X-ray source that Swift has detected since the observatory began X-ray observation in early 2005. "Just when we were beginning to think that we had seen everything that gamma-ray bursts could throw at us, this burst came along to challenge our assumptions about how powerful their X-ray emissions can be," Gehrels said.

"The burst was so bright when it first erupted that our data-analysis software shut down," said Phil Evans, a postdoctoral research assistant at the University of Leicester in the United Kingdom who wrote parts of Swift's X-ray-analysis software. "So many photons were bombarding the detector each second that it just couldn't count them quickly enough. It was like trying to use a rain gauge and a bucket to measure the flow rate of a tsunami."

The software soon resumed capturing the evolution of the burst over time, and Evans recovered the data that Swift had detected during the software's brief shutdown. The scientists then were able to measure the blast's X-ray brightness at 143,000 X-ray photons per second during its fleeting period of greatest brightness, which is more that 140 times brighter than the brightest continuous X-ray source in the sky -- a neutron star that is more than 500,000 times closer to Earth than the gamma-ray burst, and that sends a 'mere' 10,000 photons per second streaming toward Swift's telescopes.

Gamma-ray bursts typically begin with a bright flash of high-energy gamma-rays and X-rays, then fade away like a fireworks display, sometimes leaving behind a disappearing afterglow in less-energetic wavelengths, including optical and ultraviolet. Surprisingly, although the energy from this burst was the brightest ever in X-rays, it was merely ordinary in optical and ultraviolet wavelengths.

The Swift scientists were able to estimate the overall brightness of GRB 100621A by sampling the photons at some distance from its overexposed center -- a standard correction technique. Scientists who study the Sun use a similar approach to observe the Sun's corona by blocking out its much-brighter center. "With this burst, we had to sample the photons twice as far from the center as we ever had to go before," Burrows said. "The correction factor for the X-rays from GRB 100621A was 168 times larger than for a typical gamma-ray burst and 5 times larger than for the brightest burst we previously had seen. We never thought we'd see anything this bright."

Automated analysis of the Swift XRT data is performed at the University of Leicester in the United Kingdom, which has been studying X-rays from outer space for the past half century. Evans was the first to see the processed data from the burst's initial blast. "When I first saw the strange data from this burst, I knew that I had discovered something extraordinary," he said. "It was an indescribable feeling when I realized, at that moment, that I was the only person in the whole universe who knew that this extraordinary event had occurred. Now, after our analysis of the data, we know that this burst is one for the record books."

Explore further: Quest for extraterrestrial life not over, experts say

More information: NASA's "Geeked on Goddard" blog has a related story about the GRB 100621A burst at geeked.gsfc.nasa.gov/?p=1417

Related Stories

Tracking the Riddle of Cosmic Gamma Rays

Aug 23, 2005

First simultaneous observation of a gamma-ray burst in the X-ray and in the very high energy gamma ray band. For the first time a gamma-ray burst (GRB) has been observed simultaneously in the X-ray and in the ...

Swift Observes An Unusual Bang In The Far Universe

Apr 06, 2006

Almost 40 years have passed since top secret nuclear weapon warning satellites accidentally discovered bursts of high energy gamma rays coming from space. Although many thousands of gamma ray bursts (GRBs) have since been ...

Swift Satellite Finds Newborn Black Holes

Aug 19, 2005

Scientists using NASA's Swift satellite say they have found newborn black holes, just seconds old, in a confused state of existence. The holes are consuming material falling into them while somehow propelling ...

Worldwide hunt to solve the mystery of gamma-ray bursts

Feb 16, 2008

UK space scientist Emeritus Professor Alan Wells is to speak at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Boston in February on International Cooperation in Developing Swift and its Scientific Achievements.

The Cosmic Shredder and the Magnetar

Dec 15, 2005

No, it is not the title of the next Harry Potter book - but the latest discoveries from NASA's Swift mission which is studying gamma-ray bursts (GRB's) - the most powerful explosions occurring in the Universe. ...

Recommended for you

Quest for extraterrestrial life not over, experts say

Apr 18, 2014

The discovery of an Earth-sized planet in the "habitable" zone of a distant star, though exciting, is still a long way from pointing to the existence of extraterrestrial life, experts said Friday. ...

Continents may be a key feature of Super-Earths

Apr 18, 2014

Huge Earth-like planets that have both continents and oceans may be better at harboring extraterrestrial life than those that are water-only worlds. A new study gives hope for the possibility that many super-Earth ...

Exoplanets soon to gleam in the eye of NESSI

Apr 18, 2014

(Phys.org) —The New Mexico Exoplanet Spectroscopic Survey Instrument (NESSI) will soon get its first "taste" of exoplanets, helping astronomers decipher their chemical composition. Exoplanets are planets ...

User comments : 12

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

LariAnn
4.2 / 5 (11) Jul 14, 2010
"It was an indescribable feeling when I realized, at that moment, that I was the only person in the whole universe who knew that this extraordinary event had occurred."
Really? With so much space and time between us and the event, the odds are very good that someone else in the universe besides Evans knew about this, especially if they were close enough to it for damaging effects to manifest on their world, observatory, or spacecraft!
Sonhouse
4.5 / 5 (8) Jul 14, 2010
It might be a stretch to say 'I am the only person in the UNIVERSE who knew about this'. Since this event was at cosmological distances, it had to have swept through millions of galaxies on its way to Earth. I think it safe to say somewhere in those galaxies lies a civilization who also received that burst. That said, it is a heck of a discovery! Good work!
SteveL
4.2 / 5 (6) Jul 14, 2010
"The X-rays traveled through space for 5-billion years before slamming into and overwhelming Swift's X-ray Telescope on 21 June."

"It was an indescribable feeling when I realized, at that moment, that I was the only person in the whole universe who knew that this extraordinary event had occurred"

The only person within 10 billion light years (5 billion in just our direction). What an incredible waste of space. So lonely...

Ugh, eating lunch and posting - I was too slow. Seems several of us caught that.
jselin
4.8 / 5 (4) Jul 14, 2010
"It was an indescribable feeling when I realized, at that moment, that I was the only person in the whole universe who knew that this extraordinary event had occurred."

I'd have to disagree... the "locals" 5 billion years ago when this thing went off were probably quite aware a nearby star exploded. That is, if you believe life is abundant.

EDIT: Haha, wow too slow I guess. I like that 4 of us were all typing the same basic thing!
Ravenrant
1.8 / 5 (5) Jul 14, 2010
Actually his statement is correct, there probably wasn't anyone else who was alive at that time that knew about it.
frajo
3.4 / 5 (5) Jul 14, 2010
there probably wasn't anyone else who was alive at that time that knew about it.
How do you calculate this probability?
omatumr
2.1 / 5 (7) Jul 14, 2010
More important would be information on the energy source for the blast.

The US Department of Energy should know, or at least have some ideas.

The largest known sources of nuclear are:
Neutron Repulsion > Fusion > Fission
Journal of Fusion Energy 20 (2001) 197-201

With kind regards,
Oliver K. Manuel
Former NASA Principal
Investigator for Apollo
Ethelred
3.7 / 5 (7) Jul 15, 2010
Neutron Repulsion > Fusion > Fission


Nonexistent things can't be greater than Fusion or Fission or for that matter a lighter.

And a few you failed to mention. Matter anti-Matter, core collapse super-nova, stellar collisions, Neutron Star collisions. Oh yes how about a neutron star colliding with a black hole.

Ethelred
Hesperos
not rated yet Jul 15, 2010
Ok, a jet was pointed at the Solar System. Is that such a big deal? It could be if the source were 5 million instead of 5 billion light years away.
omatumr
3 / 5 (4) Jul 15, 2010
Please see the related news story and comments on PhysOrg, "Unravelling the Mystery of Massive Star Birth: All Stars are Born the Same Way"

With kind regards,
Oliver K. Manuel
Ethelred
4 / 5 (4) Jul 16, 2010
Please notice the total lack of any sign of a neutron star in that article.

How about you figure out just how often an iron atom is supposed to decay your hypothesis? Then see how big a stack of iron would be needed to see a decay in a reasonable length of time. Then compare it the experiment in India. Do the math first before you look please.

Ethelred
Modernmystic
1 / 5 (1) Jul 27, 2010
Didn't Luke blow that thing up?

More news stories

NASA's space station Robonaut finally getting legs

Robonaut, the first out-of-this-world humanoid, is finally getting its space legs. For three years, Robonaut has had to manage from the waist up. This new pair of legs means the experimental robot—now stuck ...

Cosmologists weigh cosmic filaments and voids

(Phys.org) —Cosmologists have established that much of the stuff of the universe is made of dark matter, a mysterious, invisible substance that can't be directly detected but which exerts a gravitational ...

Ex-Apple chief plans mobile phone for India

Former Apple chief executive John Sculley, whose marketing skills helped bring the personal computer to desktops worldwide, says he plans to launch a mobile phone in India to exploit its still largely untapped ...

Filipino tests negative for Middle East virus

A Filipino nurse who tested positive for the Middle East virus has been found free of infection in a subsequent examination after he returned home, Philippine health officials said Saturday.

Egypt archaeologists find ancient writer's tomb

Egypt's minister of antiquities says a team of Spanish archaeologists has discovered two tombs in the southern part of the country, one of them belonging to a writer and containing a trove of artifacts including reed pens ...

Airbnb rental site raises $450 mn

Online lodging listings website Airbnb inked a $450 million funding deal with investors led by TPG, a source close to the matter said Friday.