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Washington (AFP) – Astronomers have observed the brightest flash of light ever, from an event that occurred 2.4 billion light-years from Earth and was likely caused by the formation of a black hole.
A gamma-ray burst – the most intense form of electromagnetic radiation – was first detected by orbiting telescopes on October 9, and its subsequent glow is still monitored by scientists around the world.
Astrophysicist Brendan O’Connor told AFP that gamma-ray bursts lasting hundreds of seconds, as happened on Sunday, are thought to be caused by the deaths of massive stars 30 times larger than our sun.
The star explodes into a supernova, collapses into a black hole, and then material forms in a disk around the black hole, falls inside, and blasts off in a jet of energy traveling at 99.99% of the speed of light.
The flash released photons carrying 18 TeV of energy – that’s 18 with 12 zeros behind – and affected long-wave radio communications in the Earth’s ionosphere.
“It really is a record-breaker, both in the amount of photons and the energy of the photons that reach us,” said O’Connor, who used infrared instruments at the Gemini South telescope in Chile to take new observations early Friday.
“Something this bright, that’s right around the corner, is really a once-in-a-century event,” he added.
“Gamma-ray bursts generally release the same amount of energy as our Sun throughout its lifetime within a few seconds – and this event is the brightest gamma-ray burst.”
The gamma-ray burst, known as GRB 221009A, was first observed by telescopes including NASA’s Fermi Gamma Ray Space Telescope, Neil Gehrells Swift Observatory, and the Wind spacecraft Sunday morning ET.
A 1.9 billion year old movie
It originated from the direction of the constellation Sagitta, and has traveled an estimated 1.9 billion years to reach Earth – less than the current distance to its starting point, because the universe is expanding.
Observing the event now is like watching a 1.9 billion-year-old recording of those events unfold in front of us, giving astronomers a rare opportunity to form new insights into things like the formation of black holes.
“That’s what makes this kind of science so addictive — you get an adrenaline rush when these things happen,” said O’Connor, who is affiliated with the University of Maryland and George Washington University.
He added that although the initial explosion might have been visible to the lucky astronomers, it had faded out of their view.
Over the coming weeks, he and others will continue to monitor the supernova signatures at optical and infrared wavelengths, to confirm that their hypothesis about the origins of the flash is correct, and that the event is consistent with known physics.
Unfortunately, while the initial explosion may be visible to amateur astronomers, it has since faded
Supernova explosions are also expected to be responsible for the production of heavy elements — such as gold, platinum and uranium — and astronomers will also be looking for their signatures.
Astrophysicists have written in the past that the sheer force of gamma-ray bursts can cause extinction-level events here on Earth.
But O’Connor noted that because bursts of energy are so highly focused, and unlikely to appear in our galaxy, this scenario isn’t something we should worry too much about.
© 2022 AFP
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