Though we all have differences, there’s one commonality that has prevailed for all of humanity: we are all floating on a rock, flying through outer space at over a million miles an hour.
Thanks to the rapid advancement of technology in the past century, we can observe much more of the universe than we ever thought possible.
The scale and sheer size of the universe make it impossible to truly learn everything, but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.
Here’s what’s happening in space this week.
AN ANCIENT RECORD-BREAKING GAMMA-RAY BURST
Astronomers across the globe were awestruck as multiple telescopes both on the ground and orbiting the Earth detected an unbelievably large gamma-ray burst (GRB).
Early Sunday morning, an “unusually bright and long-lasting pulse of high-energy radiation” swept over planet Earth, according to NASA.
The massive explosion of x-rays and gamma rays, labeled GRB 221009A, was detected by telescopes worldwide, including NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope.
A capture of the afterglow of GRB221009A from Swift’s X-ray telescope showing x-rays scattered in the direction of the burst.
Photo credit NASA/Swift/A. Beardmore (University of Leicester)
Though it was detected less than one week ago, NASA said that it actually occurred more than 2 billion years ago, and the ancient light emitted from it is only now reaching Earth. The burst, which NASA’s telescope detected for over 10 hours, came at a surprisingly coincidental moment, the beginning of the 10th Fermi Symposium, an event that hosts gamma-ray astronomers.
One Fermi deputy project scientist who attended the conference, Judy Racusin, told NASA the burst made for an exciting start to the event.
“It’s safe to say this meeting really kicked off with a bang – everyone’s talking about this,” she said.
The light emitted from GRB221009A was so bright that several gamma-ray detectors were temporarily blinded. The gamma-ray burst emits more energy in one second than our Sun will produce in its entire lifetime of more than 10 billion years.
A capture from Swift’s Telescope taken in the visible spectrum shows the GRB’s afterglow fading over the course of 10 hours.
Photo credit NASA/Swift/B. Cenko
Though it happened 2 billion light years away, the GRB was relatively close in comparison to the distance of previous bursts, giving astronomers a rare chance to observe and study such a massive release of energy.
Gamma-ray bursts are not at all rare, however, one of this magnitude is. An astrophysicist at the University of Maryland, Brendan O’Connor, said in a statement that this type of event may occur once every 100 years.
“We think this is a once-in-a-century opportunity to address some of the most fundamental questions regarding these explosions, from the formation of black holes to tests of dark matter models,” he said.
NASA’s current hypothesis is that the origin of this GRB was the collapse of a massive star, which then triggered a supernova, ultimately giving birth to a monstrous black hole.
The GRB was not a threat to Earth, but the burst did disturb Earth’s atmosphere and ionized the ionosphere, a region of the atmosphere that reflects radio waves used for communication, causing interference in radio signals.
The excitement for astronomers didn’t end with the GRB, because they now also have a rare opportunity to study the afterglow of the burst, which is expected to continue to shine for months.
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