News / Science & Technology

Astronomers Spot Brightest Gamma-Ray Burst Ever Seen

A gamma-ray burst is thought to occur when a massive star collapses, forms a black hole, and blasts particle jets outward at nearly the speed of light. This illustration shows what it might look like.
A gamma-ray burst is thought to occur when a massive star collapses, forms a black hole, and blasts particle jets outward at nearly the speed of light. This illustration shows what it might look like.

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Astronomers have spotted what they’re calling the brightest gamma-ray burst ever seen, and it happened 3.8 billion years ago.

A trio of NASA satellites, working in concert with ground-based robotic telescopes, captured never-before-seen details of a blast of light from a dying star, GRB 130427A, in a distant galaxy.

"We expect to see an event like this only once or twice a century, so we're fortunate it happened when we had the appropriate collection of sensitive space telescopes with complementary capabilities available to see it," said Paul Hertz, director of NASA's Astrophysics Division in Washington.

Gamma-ray bursts are the most luminous explosions in the cosmos, thought to be triggered when the core of a massive star runs out of nuclear fuel, collapses under its own weight, and forms a black hole. The black hole then drives jets of particles that drill all the way through the collapsing star and erupt into space at nearly the speed of light.

The Gamma-ray Burst Monitor (GBM) aboard NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope captured the initial wave of gamma rays from GRB 130427A shortly after 3:47 a.m. EDT April 27. In its first three seconds alone, the "monster burst" proved brighter than almost any burst previously observed.

The burst from GRB 130427A was observed for about 20 hours, far longer than any previous burst. For a gamma-ray burst, it was relatively nearby. Its light traveled 3.8 billion years before arriving at Earth, about one-third the travel time for light from typical bursts.

GRB 130427A is the subject of five papers published online Nov. 21.

Here's a short video about the discovery:

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