Jan 29, 1999

This week's gamma-ray blast is the latest in a 30-year tale of cosmic discovery

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This week's gamma-ray blast is the latest in a 30-year tale of cosmic discovery
January 29, 1999: Gamma Ray Bursts have puzzled scientists for over 30 years, since their discovery in 1967. This week's news of the identification of an optical counterpart to a burst as it was occurring is only the latest in a three-decade search for understanding of these enigmatic objects. Three decades of research have allowed scientists to finally answer the question "Where are the Gamma-Ray Bursts?", and can now move on to answer the question "What causes them?" Recent discoveries in this field by a collection of international astronomers have demonstrated that these bursts are from the most remote parts of the universe, releasing perhaps as much energy in 10 seconds as the Sun emits in its entire 10-billion-year lifetime. Yet scientists are still baffled in many respects when it comes to answering the question "What could cause something like this?"


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A brief history...

Gamma-ray bursts (GRBs for short) are brief flashes of high-energy radiation that appear on average about once a day at an unpredictable time from unpredictable directions in the sky. Since their discovery (by accident) in the late 1960's, several thousand bursts have been detected, most of them with BATSE, the Burst and Transient Source Experiment, on board the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory. Their distribution on the sky is completely uniform. In particular, they do not appear to come from the Milky Way. So where do they come from? This is the question that had kept astronomers busy for several decades, with no apparent resolution in sight.


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The combined angular and brightness distributions of bursts eliminates the possibility that GRBs come from the disk of the Milky Way, and left astronomers with a choice between one of two possibilities:

  • GRBs originate either in a very large spherical halo (or corona) around the Galaxy, or
  • They come from the far depths of the Universe, billions of light years away from us.

The galactic halo would have to be very big, about a million light years across, which is much bigger than the diameter of the known Milky Way system (which is less than a hundred thousand light years), much less the halo that the Milky Way is known to have. The very large halo size is required to avoid an asymmetry in the GRB sky distribution caused by the fact that the Earth is offset from the center of the Galaxy, by about 25,000 light years.

In the case of the other distance scale (referred to by astronomers as "cosmological") it is the smoothness of the GRB sky distribution that tells us that their distances must exceed the length scales over which the distribution of matter appears clumpy, i.e., larger than clusters and superclusters of galaxies, and the voids between them.

What we thought...

Between the time of the discovery of bursts in the late 1960's, and the launch of the BATSE experiment in 1991, most astronomers were convinced that bursts originated in our own Galaxy, on or near objects called neutron stars. Our Milky Way Galaxy contains many neutron stars, objects as massive as the Sun (about 300,000 times the mass of the Earth) but no bigger than about 10 kilometers in diameter. Their tremendous gravitational field and magnetic field made them an ideal source for the gamma-ray bursts.

Why we built BATSE...



See how the Gamma Ray Observatory
was put together
The BATSE experiment on GRO was built with every intention of confirming this theory.  It was believed that with BATSE's increased sensitivity, we would be able to see the faint gamma-ray bursts map out the Milky Way on the sky, the same way the stars appear to do so when you get away from the city lights and can see fainter objects.

This concept is demonstrated in the accompanying figure. At the top, we see a schematic of our Galaxy's disk, with the Earth and BATSE located at the star. If we were not able to see very far out into space, symbolized by the first circle, we have the situation shown in the first set of plots. We see bursts in every direction equally. At the same time, we see there is no detectable edge and the brightness distribution of bursts follows a special curve indicating homogeneity. This is because our small inner circle is, to first order, filled uniformly with bursts.

On the other hand, if we can see out of the disk of the Galaxy, such as in the case of the outer circle, the bursts do not appear uniform on the sky, and the distribution shows a deficit of weak bursts, because there are not very many bursts located near the edge of the second circle.


This appealing idea was confronted with reality in 1992, when it became clear from BATSE observations that GRBs are distributed uniformly on the sky, without a concentration to the plane of the Milky Way, or towards its center or in other clumps of or concentrations. In fact, the distribution is almost perfectly random.

By itself, the angular distribution could lead one to argue that perhaps we see the bursts coming from quite nearby, from distances small compared to the thickness of the disk of the Milky Way. However, this would imply, as we saw above, that in no direction do we start to see the edge of the GRB distribution, or in this case, the edge of the Milky Way disk. Such an edge would reveal itself in the distribution of brightnesses of bursts, which would show a deficit of faint bursts.

But this is contradicted by the observed brightness distribution of GRBs, which shows a distinct dearth of very weak GRBs: it is as though in all directions we do see that edge.



The BATSE Angular Distribution
Click here for the latest sky map!!




The BATSE Integral Brightness Distribution


This implies distances measured in billions of light years.

At such large distances the effect of the expansion of the Universe becomes noticeable. An important effect of this expansion is the redshift of light (and gamma rays) and the apparent slowing down of clocks, both of which would cause a change in the brightness distribution very similar to what BATSE actually observes. Scientists have looked at the bursts for these cosmological effects, and some have reported seeing time dilation (weak bursts, which are presumably farther away, are, on average, longer than the strong, nearby bursts) and others report energy shifting, where the distribution of gamma-rays in faint bursts appears shifted to lower energies compared to strong bursts. In general the BATSE data seemed to be hinting at a cosmological origin, but it couldn't be proved more directly.

The key to nailing the cosmological hypothesis seemed to hinge on the ability to find a counterpart to a burst in a region of the spectrum outside of the gamma-rays. These counterparts would have the positional accuracies to link the GRB, for instance, to a faint galaxy, or allow the measurement of a redshift from an optical spectrum. Conversely, these would not be seen if GRBs came from a big galactic halo.

At last, a clue!!!

Finding such counterparts has recently become possible with the detection of GRBs with the Wide Field Camera (WFC) on board of the Italian-Dutch X-ray satellite BeppoSAX, which can pinpoint a GRB on the sky to within a circle with a diameter of 6 arcminutes (20 percent of the diameter of the full moon), and not only that, but can provide that position within a matter of hours, much faster than was possible before. This error box, if known sufficiently rapidly, is small enough that optical and radio telescopes can be used to search it for the presence of transient emission that may be connected with the GRB.

This WFC is sensitive to X rays, and can view a 40 by 40 degrees field of view, within which it can locate X-ray sources with several arcminute accuracy.

To know whether or not a GRB occurred in the field of view a Gamma-Ray Burst Monitor (GRBM) on BeppoSAX is employed, whose data are searched for GRBs every satellite orbit of 1.5 hours. When a GRB is found the WFC data are searched, and an accurate position can be determined, which is then quickly dispatched to astronomers around the world.

The first time this worked out successfully was on February 28, 1997 when a GRB was detected coming from the constellation Orion. Within 21 hours after this burst a team of astronomers from the University of Alabama in Huntsville and the University of Amsterdam used the 4.2 meter William Herschel Telescope on La Palma (one of the Canary Islands in the Atlantic Ocean, West of the North Africa) to make images of the BeppoSAX GRB location. They did the same about a week later. A comparison of these images immediately revealed one star that was present on February 28, which had disappeared a week later.


Check out the story of the first optical counterpart discovery in March, 1997


Learn more about Gamma-ray astronomy from

In the meantime the Beppo SAX astronomers had used a more precise X-ray instrument on their satellite to also observe the GRB location in detail, and they found that it contained a weak decaying X-ray source, with a position (accurate to somewhat less than an arcminute) that coincided with that of the optical star that disappeared. Clearly, the X-ray and optical afterglow of a GRB had been detected for the first time. Further conformation that the decaying X-ray and optical signals came from one and the same source was obtained from X-ray images taken with the ROSAT satellite, which located the X-ray afterglow with an accuracy of some 10 arcseconds: it still coincided with the optical afterglow.

As soon as the disappearing optical afterglow was discovered, very deep optical images were made of it with the ESO New Technology Telescope and the Keck Telescope, which showed that at the location of the optical transient there was a very weak object that looked slightly extended, quite possibly a weak galaxy.

In a matter of weeks two observations were made with the Hubble Space Telescope, which showed that the fading optical transient consists of a point source (its fading between two HST observations shows it is the GRB counterpart) and an extended source ('fuzz') at whose edge it appears to be located. Although they don't constitute solid proof, these observations naturally fit the idea that the GRB of February 28, 1997 went off in a faraway faint galaxy (the fuzz).


click for 101KB jpeg

The Wide-field Planetary Camera Image of the Region in the Visual Band. The Optical Transient is at the center of the photograph. Click for a larger image


click for larger image

A Close-Up of the Optical Transient shows both a point-like source (the bright emission) plus the extended emission (below and to the right) from what may be the distant host-galaxy. .

And Another!!!

The next major step forward occurred with a burst that was observed with the WFC on May 8, 1997. A faint optical variable star was detected at the GRB location by H. Bond of the STScI, using a 36 inch telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory. A spectrum of this star taken by M. Metzger of Caltech and his collaborators with the Keck telescope showed that the presence of absorption lines, which are redshifted by 0.83 (i.e., their wavelengths are 1.83 times their value measured in the laboratory). The case for the long distance scale appears now to be settled.

Finally, for this GRB of May 8, D. Frail of the National Radio Astronomical Observatory discovered the first radio emission associated with any GRB.

And Now This!!!

Until this week, astronomers had no idea how bright the optical emission might be during the actual time the burst was occurring. However, capturing that emission - if there actually was any - remained a high priority in the scientific community. In order to determine the gamma-ray burst location more quickly, a team of scientists, led by Dr. Scott Barthelmy at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, implemented the Gamma-ray burst Coordinates Network (GCN). This system automatically intercepts BATSE data at Goddard, calculates a rough gamma-ray burst position, and within seconds distributes the location over the Internet to eager observers around the world.

Due to the challenges of determining the burst position in the sky, previous observations of visible light from gamma-ray bursts have all been made hours after the burst had ended. The light by that time was so dim it could only be detected by the world's largest telescopes. But thanks to GCN's rapid response time, the ROTSE-I telephoto camera array in Los Alamos, N.M. was able to watch a gamma-ray burst as it occurred. Dr. Carl Akerlof of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, along with several colleagues, designed ROTSE to point quickly to a gamma-ray burst location after receiving GCN data. ROTSE uses four telephoto lenses and charge-coupled devices (CCDs) on an automated pointing system, to image a piece of sky 16.5 degrees across as fast as every 8 seconds.

ROTSE received a GCN location 4 seconds after the burst was identified by BATSE, and was able to observe the gamma-ray burst a mere 22 seconds after it had begun. At its brightest, the burst reached an apparent magnitude of 8.9, approximately 15 times dimmer than the faintest stars visible to the naked eye.


Web Links

Jan 27, 1999: GOTCHA! The Big One That Didn't Get Away - For the first time, images of visible light from a cosmic explosion are captured by a robotic telescope while spectacular gamma-ray data are captured by orbiting satellites.

Cosmic Gamma Ray Bursts NEWS & RESEARCH

Gamma-ray Bursters cross the 'Line of Death' - Oct. 13, 1998. A study of gamma ray burst spectra shows one more thing that these mysterious, cosmological gamma ray bursts are not.

Blast from the past: the latest clue in solving the gamma-ray burst mystery (May 6, 1998).

Gamma-ray burst identification earns top prize (Jan. 12, 1998)

Twinkle, twinkle, massive fireball - reports from the 4th Huntsville Gamma-ray Burst Symposium (Sept. 17, 1997)

Discovery may be "smoking gun" in gamma-ray mystery (March 31, 1997).

BATSE instrument web site

Italian-Dutch X-ray satellite BeppoSAX web site

Astronomers are planning further observations to learn more about these mysterious gamma-ray bursts. To check on the possibility of lensing, BATSE scientists at NASA/Marshall are monitoring their data for other gamma-ray bursts coming from the same location in the sky. In addition, once the optical light has faded sufficiently, astronomers will use the world's most sensitive telescopes, including NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, to try to identify any galaxies lying near the gamma-ray burst.

Never before have scientists been able to watch the visible light during a gamma-ray burst. Ever since the bursts were first discovered in 1967, scientists have been eager to gather more data about these elusive, cataclysmic explosions. Now, thanks to this collaboration between teams of international astronomers made possible by the communication capabilities of the Internet, scientists can learn more than they ever have before.

"This discovery demonstrates the power of multiple spacecraft and ground-based instruments working together via the Internet to solve some of the greatest mysteries in astrophysics," commented Dr. Gerald Fishman, Principal Investigator of the BATSE experiment

Thanks to this type of co-operation, scientists have now made an immense leap toward solving the enigma of gamma-ray bursts.


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For more information, please contact:
Dr. John M. Horack , Director of Science Communications
Author: Dr. John M. Horack, Dr. Chryssa Kouveliotou , Leslie Mullen
Curator: Linda Porter
NASA Official: Ron Koczor