‘Most powerful explosion ever’ detected by telescopes

The gamma ray burst was picked up by multiple telescopes (NSF's NOIRLab)
The gamma ray burst was picked up by multiple telescopes. (NSF's NOIRLab)

Astronomers have spotted a record-breaking gamma ray burst, the most energetic type of electromagnetic explosion in the universe.

The explosion, in a distant galaxy 2.4 billion light-years from Earth, represents the collapse of a star many times the mass of our Sun, scientists believe.

The collapse of the star has launched an extremely powerful supernova and gives birth to a black hole.

Gamma-Ray Burst GRB221009A was first detected on 9 October by orbiting X-ray and gamma-ray telescopes.

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The titanic cosmic explosion triggered a burst of activity from astronomers around the world as they raced to study the aftermath from what is one of the nearest and possibly the most-energetic gamma-ray burst (GRB) ever observed.

Just-released observations by two independent teams using the Gemini South telescope in Chile – one of the twin telescopes of the International Gemini Observatory operated by NSF's NOIRLab – targeted the bright, glowing remains of the explosion.

The GRB, identified as GRB 221009A, occurred in the direction of the constellation Sagitta.

The teams now have access to both datasets for their analyses of this energetic and evolving event.

"The exceptionally long GRB 221009A is the brightest GRB ever recorded and its afterglow is smashing all records at all wavelengths," O'Connor said. "Because this burst is so bright and also nearby, we think this is a once-in-a-century opportunity to address some of the most fundamental questions regarding these explosions, from the formation of black holes to tests of dark matter models."

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Gemini chief scientist Janice Lee said: "The agility and responsiveness of Gemini's infrastructure and staff are hallmarks of our observatory and have made our telescopes go-to resources for astronomers studying transient events."

Already communications have gone out to fellow astronomers through the Nasa Gamma-Ray Coordinates Network, the archive of which is now filling up with reports from around the world.

"In our research group, we've been referring to this burst as the 'BOAT', or Brightest Of All Time, because when you look at the thousands of bursts gamma-ray telescopes have been detecting since the 1990s, this one stands apart," Rastinejad said.

"Gemini's sensitivity and diverse instrument suite will help us to observe GRB221009A's optical counterparts to much later times than most ground-based telescopes can observe. This will help us understand what made this gamma-ray burst so uniquely bright and energetic."

When black holes form, they drive powerful jets of particles that are accelerated to nearly the speed of light.

These jets then piece through what remains of the progenitor star, emitting X-rays and gamma-rays as they stream into space.

If these jets are pointed in the general direction of Earth, they are observed as bright flashes of X-rays and gamma-rays.

Another gamma-ray burst this bright may not appear for decades or even centuries.

There are also extraordinary reports of disturbances in the Earth's ionosphere affecting long wave radio transmissions from the energetic radiation from the GRB221009A event.

Scientists are also wondering how very-high-energy 18 TeV (tera-electron-volt) photons observed with the Chinese Large High Altitude Air Shower Observatory could defy our standard understanding of physics and survive their 2.4 billion year journey to Earth.

"The Gemini observations will allow us to utilise this nearby event to the fullest and seek out the signatures of heavy elements formed and ejected in the massive star collapse," O'Connor said.

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