Imagine the Universe!

"Local" Gamma-Ray Bursts Are Newest Pieces of Puzzle

28 January 2002

Don't look now, but some gamma-ray bursts may be closer than you think. Although scientists have believed for some time that most gamma-ray bursts originate from the farthest reaches of the Universe, a NASA Goddard scientist has discovered about 100 of them that are quite "local," within 325 million light years from Earth.

Gamma-ray bursts are the most powerful events in the Universe, second only to the big bang in terms of energy output. A burst in our Galaxy beamed in our direction, within 25,000 light years, could blow away the Earth's protective atmosphere. Scientists don't know what causes these bursts, but they learn more about this phenomenon every day.

The finding by Jay Norris of Goddard Space Flight Center adds a new twist. Dr. Norris analyzed over 1,400 gamma-ray bursts, detected during the 1990s by the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory. Most bursts did indeed originate billions of light years from Earth, scattered in all directions, he said. Yet about 100 seem to be rather close, forming an oblate distribution toward the Supergalactic Plane, an imaginary plane that slices through several galaxy clusters within about 325 million light-years from Earth. He presented these results at the winter meeting of the American Astronomical Society in January 2002.

No one has observed such clustering of gamma-ray bursts before. These nearby events -- whose sheer number and proximity has taken scientists by surprise -- represent a new subclass of gamma-ray bursts. They may appear as frequently as certain star explosions called Type Ib/c supernovae; they could be a source of detectable gravitational radiation; and their presence could explain the existence of ultrahigh-energy cosmic rays. This is all big news for scientists.

Here's the trouble with studying gamma-ray bursts: However powerful and frequent, they are random and fade so quickly that scientists have been unable to determine the source of the bursts. Most gamma-ray bursts last from only a few seconds to about a minute. The afterglow can linger in X-ray, optical and radio wavebands for a few days to weeks.

Scientists do have theories on what these bursts could be. "Gamma-ray bursts may come from merging black holes or neutron stars, or from the collapse of theorized massive stars tens to hundreds of times more massive than the Sun," Dr. Norris said.

In 1999, Dr. Norris and his colleagues at Goddard uncovered a relationship between the distance to a burst, its luminosity, and its so-called "lag time." In any given burst, the high-energy gamma-ray photons (particles of light) arrive at Earth-orbiting detectors slightly faster than the lower-energy gamma-ray photons. This "lag time" in photon arrival is the result of the physics of the burst.

More luminous bursts seem to have shorter lag times. Comparing the intrinsic burst luminosity (the actual brightness, determined by photon lag times) with the measured luminosity (how bright the burst appears to Earth-orbiting gamma-ray detectors) yields a distance to the source.

By characterizing gamma-ray bursts in terms of lag time and luminosity, Dr. Norris could determine that most of the 1,437 archived burst profiles he studied came from bursts with high luminosities originating at cosmological distances, billions of light years from Earth, as scientists have long suspected.

However, about 100 bursts were of lower luminosity. Norris speculates that these kinds of bursts are created by the collapse of massive stars, perhaps 10 to 50 times as massive as the Sun. These bursts seem to concentrate towards the Supergalactic Plane, which follows the local matter distribution.

If the bursts originated from this region, they could be associated with Type 1b/c supernovae. The bursts could explain the origin of ultrahigh-energy cosmic rays, yet another longstanding mystery. (Thus far, scientists have been hard-pressed to explain the presence of these cosmic rays, which are atomic particles moving at near light speed carrying the kinetic energy of a major league fastball.)

Scientists might be able to confirm this new subclass of local gamma-ray bursts with LIGO, a ground-based gravitational wave detector funded by the National Science Foundation. LIGO theoretically could detect the ripples in spacetime caused by collapsing stars within several hundred million light years from Earth.

NASA's Swift mission, scheduled for 2003 launch, could also confirm the existence of these nearby bursts. Swift will have imaging capability and the sensitivity to see these bursts -- which are lower in energy, less luminous, have longer lags compared to bursts at cosmological distances, and have been difficult to detect thus far.

Swift can also quickly determine the precise location of the bursts. If the bursts are associated with Type 1b/c supernovae (high mass stars that have blown off their outer hydrogen layers before exploding), they would appear just before the supernovae, which would provide scientists with advanced warning to witness an entire supernova event.

That would be quite the show: a gamma-ray burst announcing the beginning of a supernova. What will the Universe ever do for an encore?

If words seem to be missing from the articles, please read this.

Imagine the Universe! is a service of the High Energy Astrophysics Science Archive Research Center (HEASARC), Dr. Alan Smale (Director), within the Astrophysics Science Division (ASD) at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.

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Curator: Meredith Gibb
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