Page last updated at 10:37 GMT, Friday, 20 February 2009

Telescope spies cataclysmic blast

GRB 080916C's X-ray afterglow appears orange and yellow in this view that merges images from Swift's UltraViolet/Optical and X-ray telescopes. (Nasa)
The burst's afterglow seen at lower energy X-ray wavelengths

Astronomers have recorded the most powerful radiation blast from deep space yet detected.

The event was observed by Nasa's recently launched Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope and reported in the online edition of the journal Science.

The source of the blast is assumed to be the catastrophic implosion of a star, to create a black hole.

Scientists say the spectacle's energy release was equivalent to thousands of ordinary exploding stars.

THE FERMI MISSION
Glast spacecraft (Nasa/General Dynamics)
Spacecraft was launched in June 2008 on a five-year mission
It is looking at the Universe in the highest-energy form of light
Fermi is 2.8m (9.2ft) high and 2.4m (8.2ft) in diameter
The spacecraft orbits at an altitude of 565km (350 miles)
It could pick up about 200 cosmic explosions each year
"This is the most spectacular burst ever seen at high energy," said Dr Valerie Connaughton, a scientist from the University of Alabama, Huntsville, and a member of Fermi's Gamma-ray Burst Monitor (GBM) instrument team.

"If the event that caused this blew out in every direction instead of being a focused beam, it would be equivalent to 4.9 times the mass of the Sun being converted to gamma rays in a matter of minutes."

Theory suggests that a certain type of giant, short-lived star can experience catastrophic collapse when the nuclear reactions at its core can no longer support its mass.

When this sort of star implodes, to create a black hole, it generates jets of material that punch their way out of the collapsing mass at near light-speed, to produce extremely high-energy emissions of light.

Most of these emissions last only a few seconds, however. The one seen by Fermi at 0013 GMT on 16 September last year, in the constellation Carina, went on for 23 minutes.

Researchers working on the Nasa mission say the extraordinary longevity of the gamma-ray burst may force them to change their theories about how these colossal blasts work.

Artist's impression (CXC/M.Weiss)
Impression: The collapse event produces super-fast jets of particles

"We were waiting for this one," said Peter Michelson, the principal investigator on Fermi's Large Area Telescope at Stanford University.

"Burst emissions at these energies are still poorly understood, and Fermi is giving us the tools to understand them."

The explosion has been designated GRB 080916C. Analysis of the light suggests its point of origin is about 12 billion light-years from Earth (Seen from Earth, it came from just below the star Chi Carinae in the southern sky).



Print Sponsor


SEE ALSO
Observatory detects record burst
19 Sep 08 |  Science & Environment
First light for space telescope
27 Aug 08 |  Science & Environment
Lift-off for Nasa space telescope
11 Jun 08 |  Science & Environment
Nasa's eye on the 'violent cosmos'
10 Jun 08 |  Science & Environment
Probe studies 'extreme physics'
11 Jan 07 |  Science & Environment

RELATED INTERNET LINKS
The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites


FEATURES, VIEWS, ANALYSIS
Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit

BBC navigation

BBC © 2013 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.

Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific