Overview/ Gamma-Ray Bursts" data-pin-do="buttonBookmark">
A PICTURE LIKE THIS could not have been drawn with any confidence a decade ago, because no one had yet figured out what causes gamma-ray bursts-- flashes of high-energy radiation that light up the sky a couple of times a day. Now astronomers think of them as the ultimate stellar swan song. A black hole, created by the implosion of a giant star, sucks in debris and sprays out some of it. A series of shock waves emits radiation.
Overview/ Gamma-Ray Bursts Image: MARK A. GARLICK
Early in the morning of January 23, 1999, a robotic telescope in New Mexico picked up a faint flash of light in the constellation Corona Borealis. Though just barely visible through binoculars, it turned out to be the most brilliant explosion ever witnessed by humanity. We could see it nine billion light-years away, more than halfway across the observable universe. If the event had instead taken place a few thousand light-years away, it would have been as bright as the midday sun, and it would have dosed Earth with enough radiation to kill off nearly every living thing.
The flash was another of the famous gamma-ray bursts, which in recent decades have been one of astronomy's most intriguing mysteries. The first sighting of a gamma-ray burst (GRB) came on July 2, 1967, from military satellites watching for nuclear tests in space. These cosmic explosions proved to be rather different from the man-made explosions that the satellites were designed to detect. For most of the 35 years since then, each new burst merely heightened the puzzlement. Whenever researchers thought they had the explanation, the evidence sent them back to square one.
This article was originally published with the title The Brightest Explosions in the Universe.