A huge and exceptionally powerful explosion in space has just been detected by scientists

A huge and exceptionally powerful explosion in space has just been detected by scientists

In space, things often go boom.

And recently, on October 9, astronomers observed an extraordinarily colossal boom. NASA’s Swift Observatory, which is specifically designed to spot the most powerful explosions known in the universe today – called gamma-ray bursts – detected one such extremely powerful burst. Something extremely powerful must be producing these jets of energy traveling through space, and scientists say they are caused by the collapse and explosion of huge stars, events called supernovae.

For a star to become a supernova, it must be quite massive – at least eight times the size of the sun. But for a supernova to produce the strongest type of gamma-ray burst, the star must be about 30 to 40 times the size of the sun. This powerful new detection, so rare that we’ll probably only observe something of this magnitude about once a decade, comes from such a powerful star.

“It’s a very unique event,” Yvette Cendes, astronomer and postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, told Mashable.

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Above all, you don’t have to worry. This tremendous explosion occurred in a galaxy 2 billion light-years away. At such a distance, its energy, which has been traveling and propagating through space for eons, presents no danger to us. But we can easily, with satellites, detect it.

“It’s the equivalent of having front row seats at a fireworks display,” Cendes explained.

(Gamma rays are on the same radiation spectrum as AM and FM radio, the visible light you can see, and X-rays, although gamma rays have the most energy.)

“It’s incredibly, incredibly rare.”

Astronomers have never seen a gamma-ray burst in our galactic neighborhood (i.e. the local galaxies around us). This is because stellar explosions themselves are not too common. A star in our galaxy, the Milky Way, will go supernova about once a century. But a huge star, of the type needed to produce an extremely bright and long (on the order of several minutes) gamma-ray burst, only explodes about once every million years in an average-sized galaxy like ours. , noted Cendes.

“It’s incredibly, incredibly rare,” Cendes said.

Gamma-ray bursts are detected at great distances because there are hundreds of billions of galaxies in the deep cosmos, teeming with stars. There are relatively few opportunities for such an event to occur near us, compared to the larger universe. (Also, to detect it, you must face the direction of the “funnel” of energy radiated into space by the explosion.)

artist's conception of a gamma-ray burst of an exploded star

Artist’s impression of a gamma-ray burst from an exploding star.
Credit: NASA/ESA/. Mr. Grain Fair

Because these gamma-ray bursts often occur billions of light-years away, instruments designed to detect these signals are extremely sensitive. This is another reason why this detection, which was relatively “close”, was so intense and “bright”.

“It’s like pointing a telescope at the sun,” Cendes explained. “He saturated the sensors.” The explosion “ranks among the brightest events known,” NASA noted.

You might wonder what happens to the exploded star now after such a dramatic collapse and explosion. It probably turned into a black hole. “Most black holes form from the remains of a large star that dies in a supernova explosion,” NASA notes.

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residual flux of a gamma-ray burst

NASA’s Swift Telescope captured the “reflux” of the powerful gamma-ray burst about an hour after the agency detected the event.
Credit: NASA / Swift / A. Beardmore (University of Leicester)

Black holes are incredibly curious cosmic objects. As Mashable previously reported, black holes are places where matter has shrunk into an intensely compact area. If the Earth were (hypothetically) crushed into a black hole, it would be less than an inch in diameter. Yet the object would still be extremely massive, as it would contain the entire mass of our planet. The result is a place with such a strong gravitational pull that not even light can escape. (Things with more mass have a stronger gravitational pull.)

Astronomers like Cendes are now watch the aftermath of the dramatic gamma ray burst using powerful telescopes, such as the Submillimeter Array radio telescope atop Mauna Kea, Hawaii.

So the universe goes on. A star dies. A black hole is born. And intelligent life some 2 billion light-years away detects everything that happens.


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