Gamma-ray bursts (GRBs) are flashes of gamma rays associated with extremely energetic explosions in distant galaxies. They are the most luminous electromagnetic events occurring in the universe. Bursts can last from milliseconds to nearly an hour, although a typical burst lasts a few seconds. The initial burst is usually followed by a longer-lived "afterglow" emitting at longer wavelengths (X-ray, ultraviolet, optical, infrared, and radio).
Most observed GRBs are believed to be a narrow beam of intense radiation released during a supernova event, as a rapidly rotating, high-mass star collapses to form a black hole. A subclass of GRBs (the "short" bursts) appear to originate from a different process, possibly the merger of binary neutron stars.
The sources of most GRBs are billions of light years away from Earth, implying that the explosions are both extremely energetic (a typical burst releases as much energy in a few seconds as the Sun will in its entire 10 billion year lifetime) and extremely rare (a few per galaxy per million years). All observed GRBs have originated from outside the Milky Way galaxy, although a related class of phenomena, soft gamma repeater flares, are associated with magnetars within the Milky Way. It has been hypothesized that a gamma-ray burst in the Milky Way could cause a mass extinction on Earth.
GRBs were first detected in 1967 by the Vela satellites, a series of satellites designed to detect covert nuclear weapons tests. Hundreds of theoretical models were proposed to explain these bursts in the years following their discovery, such as collisions between comets and neutron stars. Little information was available to verify these models until the 1997 detection of the first X-ray and optical afterglows and direct measurement of their redshifts using optical spectroscopy. These discoveries, and subsequent studies of the galaxies and supernovae associated with the bursts, clarified the distance and luminosity of GRBs, definitively placing them in distant galaxies and connecting long GRBs with the deaths of massive stars.
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