An artist’s conception of the processes by which a star collapses and becomes a black hole, releasing high-energy gamma rays and X-rays, as well as visible light, in the process (credit: NASA)

An artist’s conception of the processes by which a star collapses and becomes a black hole, releasing high-energy gamma rays and X-rays, as well as visible light, in the process (credit: NASA)

Astronomers all over the world rejoiced recently after they were treated to a most privileged event. Using the RAPTOR (RAPid Telescopes for Optical Response) system in New Mexico and Hawaii, in conjunction with the most sophisticated observatories in the world, researchers witnessed what may be the most brightest event this century: an extreme flash of light emanated as a massive star “drew its last breath”, giving birth to a black hole.

The event, dubbed GRB 130427A, took place somewhere in the  constellation Leo and generated a huge flash following the collapse of a massive star simultaneously releasing visible light, X-rays and gamma rays in one big gamma-ray burst. The whole burst lasted for around 80 seconds, which might not seem like much, but considering typically most gamma-ray bursts only last a couple fractions of a second to a few seconds, this should give you an idea of how massive the explosion was.

“This was a Rosetta-Stone event that illuminates so many things — literally,” said  astrophysicist Tom Vestrand. “We were very fortunate to have all of the NASA and ground-based instruments seeing it at the same time. We had all the assets in place to collect a very detailed data set. These are data that astrophysicists will be looking at for a long time to come because we have a detailed record of the event as it unfolded.”

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No doubt this was an extremely rare event and astronomers were very lucky to catch it in full sight. What’s even more fortunate, however, is that the flash was caught by an armada of instruments — including gamma-ray and X-ray detectors aboard NASA’s Fermi, NuSTAR and Swift satellites. This means that a slew of data on GRB 130427A is now available, painting maybe the most complete picture yet of such an event, and allowing scientists to learn more about what happens when a black hole is born. For instance, following the intense gamma-ray  a lingering “afterglow” that faded in lock-step with the highest energy gamma-rays was recorded.

“This afterglow is interesting to see,” said paper co-author Przemek Wozniak of Los Alamos’s Intelligence and Space Research Division. “We normally see a flash associated with the beginning of an event, analogous to the bright flash that you would see coinciding with the explosion of a firecracker. This afterglow may be somewhat analogous to the embers that you might be able to see lingering after your firecracker has exploded. It is the link between the optical phenomenon and the gamma-rays that we haven’t seen before, and that’s what makes this display extremely exciting.”

 

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