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NASA’s Swift and Fermi missions discover an extraordinary cosmic explosion

NASA's Swift and Fermi missions discover an extraordinary cosmic explosion

Astronomers believe that GRB 221009A represents the birth of a new black hole that formed inside the core of a collapsing star. In this illustration, a black hole is driving powerful jets of particles approaching the speed of light. Jets penetrate the star, emitting X-rays and gamma rays as they flow through space. Credit: NASA/Swift/Cruz de Wilde

Astronomers around the world are dazzled by the brilliant, long-lasting pulse of high-energy radiation that swept across Earth on Sunday, October 9. The emission came from a gamma-ray burst (GRB) – the most powerful class of explosions in the universe – which ranks among the brightest known events.

On Sunday morning ET, a wave of X-rays and gamma rays It passed through the solar system, powering the detectors aboard NASA’s Fermi Gamma Ray Space Telescope, the Neil Gehrells Swift Observatory, and the Wind spacecraft, among others. Telescopes around the world have turned to the site for further study, and new observations continue.

is called GRB 221009A, and Explosion It made an unexpectedly exciting start to the 10th Fermi Symposium, a gathering of gamma-ray astronomers now taking place in Johannesburg, South Africa. “It’s safe to say that this meeting really started with great fanfare — everyone is talking about this,” said Jodi Rakusen, Fermi deputy project scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, who is attending the conference.

NASA's Fermi Rapid Missions Discover an Exceptional Cosmic Burst

Swift’s X-Ray Telescope captured the afterglow of GRB 221009A about an hour after it was first detected. The bright rings are formed as a result of X-rays scattered from the unobservable layers of dust within our galaxy that lie in the direction of the explosion. Credits: Credit: NASA/Swift/A. Birdmore (University of Leicester)

The signal, which originated from the direction of the constellation Sagitta, would have traveled an estimated 1.9 billion years to reach Earth. Astronomers believe that it represents the cry of the birth of a new black hole, formed in the core of a massive star that collapsed under its own weight. Under these conditions, the emerging black hole drives powerful jets of particles approaching the speed of light. Jets penetrate the star, emitting X-rays and gamma rays as they flow through space.

This sequence created from Fermi Large Area Telescope data reveals the sky in gamma rays centered at the GRB 221009A site. Each frame shows gamma rays with energies greater than 100 million electronvolts (MeV), with brighter colors indicating a stronger gamma ray signal. In total, they account for more than 10 hours of observations. The glow appears from the middle plane of the Milky Way as a wide diagonal band. The image is about 20 degrees across. Credit: NASA Collaboration / DOE / Fermi Latt

The explosion also provided a much-anticipated inaugural observational opportunity to link two experiments on the International Space Station – NASA’s Neisser X-ray Telescope and a Japanese detector called the Observer All-Sky X-ray Image (MAXI). The connection was activated in April, dubbed the High Power Orbital Monitor Alert Network (OHMAN). It allows NICER to quickly turn to eruptions detected by MAXI, actions that previously required the intervention of scientists on Earth.

“Uman provided an automated alert that enabled NICER to follow up within three hours, once the source became visible to the telescope,” said Zaven Arzumanian, NICER science lead at Goddard. “Future opportunities can lead to response times of a few minutes.”

Light from this ancient explosion brings new insights into stellar collapse, the birth of a black hole, the behavior and interaction of matter near the speed of light, conditions in a distant galaxy, and much more. Another GRB may not appear this bright for decades.

Images taken in visible light by Swift’s Ultraviolet/Optical Telescope show how the afterglow of GRB 221009A (circled) faded over the course of about 10 hours. The explosion appeared in the constellation Sagitta and occurred 1.9 billion years ago. The picture is 4 minutes across. Credit: NASA/Swift/B. Senko

According to a preliminary analysis, the Fermi Large Telescope (LAT) detected the explosion for more than 10 hours. One reason for the explosion’s brightness and longevity is that relative to GRB, it is relatively close to us.

said Roberta Pellera, a Fermi LAT Collaboration member who led the initial communications about the explosion and a Ph.D. student at the Polytechnic University in Bari, Italy. “But it’s also among the most energetic and brightest explosions ever, regardless of distance, which makes it doubly exciting.”

Fermi satellite celebrates 10 years of discovery

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