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NASA telescopes have detected the brightest, most high-energy flood of radiation from space ever recorded.
About 1.9 billion years ago, a dying star collapsed, exploding in a powerful burst of gamma rays that careened toward Earth. Finally, they washed over our planet on October 9. They set off detectors on three telescopes in orbit: the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope, the Neil Gehrels Swift Observatory, and the Wind spacecraft.
Swift’s X-Ray Telescope captured the afterglow of GRB 221009A about an hour after it was first detected. The bright rings form as a result of X-rays scattered by otherwise unobservable dust layers within our galaxy that lie in the direction of the burst.
NASA/Swift/A. Beardmore (University of Leicester)
Those telescopes, and other observatories around the world, quickly homed in on the source of the radiation: a distant object now called GRB 221009A, pulsing with the powerful glow of its gamma-ray emissions.
It was the most luminous, powerful event ever detected, NASA announced on Thursday. The telescopes’ images show just how dramatic the explosion was.
Images taken in visible light by Swift’s Ultraviolet/Optical Telescope show how the afterglow of GRB 221009A (circled) faded over the course of about 10 hours.
“In our research group, we’ve been referring to this burst as the ‘BOAT’, or Brightest Of All Time, because when you look at the thousands of bursts gamma-ray telescopes have been detecting since the 1990s, this one stands apart,” Jillian Rastinejad, a PhD student at Northwestern University, said in a statement.
This sequence constructed from 10 hours of Fermi Large Area Telescope data reveals the sky in gamma rays centered on the location of GRB 221009A. Brighter colors indicate a stronger gamma-ray signal.
NASA/DOE/Fermi LAT Collaboration
Rastinejad led a group of researchers who conducted follow-up observations on Friday, taking more measurements as the gamma rays continued to flood past Earth.
The radiation probably came from a supernova explosion — a dying star collapsing into a black hole. It could be decades before another gamma-ray burst this bright appears again.
“It’s a very unique event,” Yvette Cendes, an astronomer and postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, told Mashable, adding that a giant gamma-ray burst in a galaxy so close to us is “incredibly, incredibly rare.”
“It’s the equivalent of getting front row seats at a fireworks show,” she said.
The sheer power and brightness of the ancient explosion allows astronomers to collect lots of data on it, which could reveal new insights about how stars die, how black holes form, and how matter behaves near the speed of light, as it’s ejected from a supernova. It helps that the object is relatively close to us, compared to other gamma-ray bursts astronomers have detected.
That proximity “allows us to detect many details that otherwise would be too faint to see,” Roberta Pillera, a Fermi LAT Collaboration member who led initial communications about the burst, said in a NASA statement. “But it’s also among the most energetic and luminous bursts ever seen regardless of distance, making it doubly exciting.”