Gamma-ray Bursters cross the 'Line of Death'
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October 13, 1998: Cosmic gamma-ray bursts have been called
the greatest mystery of modern astronomy. They are powerful blasts
of gamma- and X-radiation that come from all parts of the sky,
but never from the same direction twice. Space satellites indicate
that Earth is illuminated by 2 to 3 bursts every day.
Fireballs and gamma-ray bursts are not the same thing
What are they? No one is certain. Until recently we didn't even know if they came from the neighborhood of our own solar system or perhaps from as far away as the edge of the universe. The first vital clues began to emerge in 1997 when astronomers detected an optical counterpart to a gamma-ray burst. In February 1997 the BeppoSAX X-ray astronomy satellite pinpointed the position of a burst in Orion to within a few arcminutes. That allowed astronomers to photograph the burst, and what they saw surprised them. They detected a rapidly fading star, probably the aftermath of a gigantic explosion, next to a faint amorphous blob believed to be a very distant galaxy.
The Burst and Transient Source Experiment (BATSE) aboard the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory, pictured above, has recorded over 2000 cosmic gamma-ray bursts since it began operations in 1991.
This image from the Hubble Space Telescope shows the optical afterglow from a gamma-ray burst detected in February 1997. The bright spot is thought to be an expanding fireball, and the weak diffuse emission (below and to the right) may be the distant host galaxy.Since then seven more optical counterparts have been discovered. A recent discovery makes gamma-ray bursts seem more fantastic than ever. Shri Kulkarni of Caltech and his colleagues found that a gamma-ray burst recorded in December 1997 came from a faint galaxy with a redshift of 3.4. That means that the burst originated over 12 billion light years away. Kulkarni noted that "The energy released by this burst in its first few seconds staggers the imagination." Indeed, it was one of the biggest explosions since the Big Bang itself.
Now that we know where gamma-ray bursts come from -- very far away -- the next daunting task is to understand what causes them. In the absence of much hard data theorists have proposed a multitude of possible scenarios, from super-supernovae to mutually annihilating neutron stars. It is widely thought that the x-ray, optical, and radio afterglows might provide some clues. The light curves of the few known optical and X-ray counterparts are consistent with that of an expanding fireball that is glowing because of a "Synchrotron Shock". The basic idea is that a tremendous explosion ejects a shock wave of material that accelerates charged particles, like electrons and protons, to velocities near the speed of light. Dr. Robert Preece, a gamma-ray astrophysicist at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, likened the shock wave to a wave on the beach. "A shock forms when the wave crest starts to fall over, and scud from the wave shoots out ahead."
A synchrotron shock wave can be visualized as an ocean wave. A shock forms when the wave crest starts to fall over, and scud from the wave shoots out ahead. In the cosmic shock wave, the 'scud' is composed of charged particles that give rise to synchrotron radiation.
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In a recently published edition of the Astrophysical Journal Letters Rob Preece and his collaborators from the University of Alabama examined over 100 bright bursts collected by the BATSE instrument on the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory and measured the slopes of their low-energy spectra. The figure at left shows their data.
Thanks to their work we now know another thing that gamma-ray bursts are not. They can't be caused by a synchrotron shock. Interestingly though, there is strengthening evidence that the optical counterparts, the glow from fireballs that appear to be the aftermath of gamma-ray bursts in distant galaxies, are caused by synchrotron shock waves. Whatever makes the fireball glow is apparently different from the mechanism that makes gamma-ray bursts. It's yet another mystery in the fantastic saga of gamma-ray bursters. Web Links More science headlines - NASA space science research
Blasts from the Past - a review of recent gamma-ray burst discoveries
Cosmic Gamma Ray Bursts - from Science@NASA Magnetars.org - all about magnetars and soft gamma-ray repeaters
BATSE Home Page
- PDF preprint of the Astrophysical Journal Letter. Reference: Preece et al. 1998, ApJ, 506, L23
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