Magazine article Science News

Unique Explosion: Gamma-Ray Burst Leads Astronomers to Supernova

Magazine article Science News

Unique Explosion: Gamma-Ray Burst Leads Astronomers to Supernova

Article excerpt

Using scores of telescopes, astronomers worldwide are chasing one of the most intriguing stellar explosions detected in nearly a decade. The supernova--a catastrophic

collapse of a massive star--is one of only a handful of these explosions known to have been heralded by a burst of gamma rays.

The observations confirm that material blasting out from a collapsing star generates a gamma-ray burst. The burst races out into space ahead of the visible, fiery glow from the supernova explosion.

A gamma-ray burst typically lies too far away--billions of light-years--and has an afterglow too bright to permit astronomers to detect the underlying supernova. But the new burst, recorded by NASA's Swift satellite on Feb. 18, resided a relatively close 440 million light-years from Earth. Furthermore, the burst was unusually weak, despite lasting nearly 200 seconds--about 100 times as long as the typical burst.

Within 3 minutes of the burst, dubbed GRB 060218, Swift's visible-light telescope pinpointed the source, in the constellation Aries. Then, the race on was on to find the hidden supernova. On Feb. 21, Alicia Soderberg of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena and her colleagues succeeded, using the large Gemini South Observatory on Cerro Pachon Mountain in Chile. The supernova is expected to reach its peak brightness around March 5, and amateur astronomers in the Northern Hemisphere with a telescope at least 16 inches across have a good chance of viewing the ongoing eruption.

Watching a supernova unfold so soon after the star erupted--particularly one linked so closely to a gamma-ray burst--is only part of the excitement, says Soderberg. …

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