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Astronomers observe the biggest, and scariest event in the universe since the beginning of time

By Marshall Connolly, Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
November 25th, 2013
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

Gamma ray bursts are very bright and very scary, and astronomers recently observed one of the brightest and closest gamma ray bursts ever last April, according to new research.

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - On April 27, light which took about 3.6 billion years to reach Earth finally arrived and was detected by orbiting space telescopes. The light was part of a gamma ray burst and this one is thought to be the brightest yet observed.

Gamma ray bursts are the most energetic events in the universe. They are also the brightest, although we do not see them on Earth because the atmosphere absorbs the rays. Yet from space, satellites can clearly see them as bright flashes that last for a fraction of a second to a few minutes.

They are also dangerous. It is theorized that if a gamma ray burst occurred close to Earth, it could bathe the planet in lethal radiation that could deplete our ozone layer and kill much of the life on the surface. Even scarier, gamma ray bursts cannot be predicted, so the first warning we would get, which would be about a flash of brilliant blue light lasting several seconds, would be too late.

The bursts are so energetic, they emit in seconds what the Sun would output in 10 billion years.

Fortunately, gamma ray bursts need special conditions for their creation. Specifically they are formed in the massive supernova explosions of rapidly rotating stars, which results in the formation of black holes, some of the universe's most enigmatic objects.

There does appear to be a couple stars near Earth which could cause such a calamity. Luckily for us, the most powerful bursts of gamma rays are along the poles of such stars and black holes, and the odds of Earth being in the path of such a polar jet are slim.

The burst observed on April 27, was the result of a massive star in another galaxy going supernova, which means the core of the star collapsed inwards on itself and its outer layers exploded into space. Astronomers observed the supernova in real-time as the light arrived from it.

Part of the reason why the explosion was so bright was because the burst occurred just a quarter of the way to the edge of the universe. Most of the bursts we observe are much more distant, virtually at the edge of the universe.

Since it was so close, it appeared much brighter than usual. That also allowed astronomers to make a more detailed observation of the event. Curiously, they found the data does not match existing models for gamma ray bursts. In other words, what they should have observed was different from what they actually saw. The differences were fairly technical, for example astronomers observed relativistic shock waves, meaning waves traveling at virtually the speed of light. They detected more photons and more gamma rays than the models predicted they should have seen.

It is possible that the proximity of the burst is partly responsible for the mismatch between the observations and model. It is also possible that the model is inaccurate in some way. Future data may help to refine the models so they work correctly. The best thing about science is that it is self-correcting.

For now, scientists continue to watch for more gamma ray bursts. The bursts occur on average about one per day, and nearly all are at the edge of the universe. In our own galaxy, one probably occurs once about every 100,000 to 1 million years. Few, if any, have ever been pointed at Earth, although it is theorized that mysterious mass extinctions in prehistoric times may have been caused by one or more such bursts. This remains highly speculative.

The April 27 burst remains an enigma for the astronomers researching it. It will take more such bursts, closer in space, to corroborate the data from the event. When that happens is anyone's guess, but hopefully it happens far enough away the rest of us don't have to worry about it.

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