'Naked-eye' gamma-ray burst was aimed squarely at Earth

September 10, 2008

University Park, Pa. — Unparalleled data from satellites and observatories around the globe show that the jet from a powerful stellar explosion on March 19 was aimed almost directly at Earth. The event, called a gamma-ray burst, became bright enough for human eyes to see. The burst's extraordinary brightness arose from a jet that shot material directly toward Earth at 99.99995 percent the speed of light.

NASA's Swift satellite detected the explosion — formally called GRB 080319B — at 2:13 a.m. U.S. Eastern Time that morning and pinpointed its position in the constellation Bootes. The Swift satellite is controlled by Penn State from its Mission Operations Center at University Park, and Penn State led in the development and assembly of two of the Swift satellite's three telescopes. "Swift was designed to find unusual bursts," said Swift principal investigator Neil Gehrels at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. "We really hit the jackpot with this one."

In a paper published in the Sept. 11 issue of Nature, Judith Racusin, a graduate student at Penn State and the lead author of the paper, and a team of 92 coauthors, report observations across the electromagnetic spectrum that began 30 minutes before the explosion and followed its afterglow for months. The team's observations give astronomers the most detailed portrait of a gamma-ray burst ever made.

"At first, I thought something was wrong," Racusin recalled, because both Swift's X-Ray Telescope and its UltraViolet/Optical Telescope indicated they were effectively blinded by the brightness of the blast. "Within minutes, as reports from other observers arrived, it was clear this explosion was an especially extraordinary event."

At the same moment Swift saw the burst, the Russian KONUS detector on NASA's Wind satellite also sensed the gamma rays and provided a wide view of their spectral structure. Simultaneously, a robotic wide-field optical camera called "Pi of the Sky" in Chile captured the burst's first visible light. The system is operated by a group of institutions from Poland.

Within the next 15 seconds, the burst brightened enough to be visible in a dark sky to human eyes. It briefly crested at magnitude 5.3 on the astronomical brightness scale. Incredibly, the dying star was 7.5 billion light-years away. Telescopes around the world were already studying the afterglow of another burst when GRB 080319B exploded just 10 degrees away. TORTORA, a robotic wide-field optical camera operated in Chile by a Russian-Italian collaboration, also caught the early light. TORTORA's rapid imaging provides the most detailed look yet at visible light associated with a GRB's initial gamma-ray blast. "We've been waiting a long time for this one," said TORTORA senior scientist Grigory Beskin of Russia's Special Astrophysical Observatory.

Gamma-ray bursts are the universe's most luminous explosions. Most occur when massive stars run out of nuclear fuel. As a star's core collapses, it creates a black hole or neutron star that, through processes not fully understood, drive powerful gas jets outward. These jets punch through the collapsing star. As the jets shoot into space, they strike gas previously shed by the star and heat it, which generates bright afterglows.

The team believes the jet directed toward Earth contained an ultra-fast component just 0.4 of a degree across. This core resided within a slightly less energetic jet about 20 times wider. The broad component is more typical of what Swift sees from other bursts. Perhaps every gamma-ray burst has a narrow jet, but astronomers miss it most of the time. The nearly head-on alignment required to see it occurs by chance only about once a decade.

Swift is managed by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center and is controlled by Penn State. It was built and is being operated in collaboration with Penn State, the Los Alamos National Laboratory and General Dynamics in the United States; the University of Leicester and Mullard Space Sciences Laboratory in the United Kingdom; Brera Observatory and the Italian Space Agency in Italy; plus partners in Germany and Japan.

The TORTORA camera is mounted on the Italian REM telescope at the European Southern Observatory in Chile. It was built and is being operated by a collaboration between Italy's Bologna State University and Brera Observatory and Russia's Special Astrophysical Observatory and Institute of Precise Instrumentation.

  • This artist's concept shows the 'naked-eye' gamma-ray burst. Observations suggest material shot outward in a two-component jet, depicted by white and green beams.

    IMAGE: NASA/Swift/Mary Pat Hrybyk-Keith and John Jones
Last Updated November 18, 2010