Universe  ID: 13427

A New Era in Gamma-ray Science

A pair of distant explosions discovered by NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope and Neil Gehrels Swift Observatory have produced the highest-energy light yet seen from these events, called gamma-ray bursts (GRBs). The detections, made by two different ground-based observatories, provide new insights into the mechanisms driving gamma-ray bursts.

Astronomers first recognized the GRB phenomenon 46 years ago. The blasts appear at random locations in the sky about once a day, on average.

The most common type of GRB occurs when a star much more massive than the Sun runs out of fuel. Its core collapses and forms a black hole, which then blasts jets of particles outward at nearly the speed of light. These jets pierce the star and continue into space. They produce an initial pulse of gamma rays — the most energetic form of light — that typically lasts about a minute.

As the jets race outward, they interact with surrounding gas and emit light across the spectrum, from radio to gamma rays. These so-called afterglows can be detected up to months — and rarely, even years — after the burst at longer wavelengths.

Much of what astronomers have learned about GRBs over the past couple of decades has come from observing their afterglows at lower energies. Now, thanks to these new ground-based detections, they're seeing the gamma rays from GRBs in a whole new way.

On Jan. 14, 2019, just before 4 p.m. EST, both the Fermi and Swift satellites detected a spike of gamma rays from the constellation Fornax. The missions alerted the astronomical community to the location of the burst, dubbed GRB 190114C.

One facility receiving the alerts was the Major Atmospheric Gamma Imaging Cherenkov (MAGIC) observatory, located on La Palma in the Canary Islands, Spain. Both of its 17-meter telescopes automatically turned to the site of the fading burst. They began observing the GRB just 50 seconds after it was detected and captured the most energetic gamma rays yet seen from these events.

The energy of visible light ranges from about 2 to 3 electron volts. In 2013, Fermi’s Large Area Telescope detected light reaching an energy of 95 billion electron volts (GeV), then the highest seen from a burst. This falls just shy of 100 GeV, the threshold for so-called very high-energy (VHE) gamma rays. With GRB 190114C, MAGIC became the first facility to report unambiguous VHE emission, with energies up to a trillion electron volts. That’s 10 times the peak energy Fermi has seen to date.

Data from a different burst, which Fermi and Swift both discovered, confirm afterglows reach these energies. Ten hours after the alerts, the High Energy Stereoscopic System (H.E.S.S.) pointed its large, 28-meter gamma-ray telescope to the location of the burst, called GRB 180720B. A careful analysis carried out during the weeks following the event revealed that H.E.S.S. clearly detected VHE gamma rays with energies up to 440 GeV. Even more remarkable, the glow continued for two hours following the start of the observation. Catching this emission so long after the GRB’s detection is both a surprise and an important new discovery.


Francis Reddy (University of Maryland College Park): Lead Science Writer
Chris Smith (USRA): Animator
Scott Wiessinger (USRA): Producer
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NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. However, individual items should be credited as indicated above.

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