Magazine article Science News

Gamma-Ray Bursts May One-Up Themselves. (Cosmic Afterglow)

Magazine article Science News

Gamma-Ray Bursts May One-Up Themselves. (Cosmic Afterglow)

Article excerpt

Bursts of gamma rays that originate beyond our galaxy are already known to be the universe's most energetic flashes. But new observations suggest that these cosmic outbursts may pack an even greater wallop than scientists had estimated.

Last Oct. 4, just 11 seconds after NASA's High-Energy Transient Explorer II satellite recorded a gamma-ray burst, the craft alerted astronomers to the event. For the first time, researchers closely monitored the visible-light afterglow of a burst almost as soon as it appeared. Since then, another gamma-ray burst has been observed from start to finish (SN: 2/1/03, p. 77).

The first half-hour of the observations is the most puzzling, report Derek W. Fox of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena and his colleagues in the March 20 Nature. During that time, the afterglow decayed more slowly than the scientists had expected. The finding may be linked to the origin of gamma-ray bursts.

Theorists hold that gamma-ray bursts are generated when high-speed particle jets in the cosmos are dramatically slowed, probably by collisions between clumps of material within them. The afterglow is created when the jet slams into the surrounding interstellar medium.

The slow decay of the afterglow observed last October suggests that something is giving the jet an extra kick, Fox's team concludes. That dovetails with a popular explanation for the origin of the jet: the collapse of a massive star into a black hole. As a black hole pulls in material from its surroundings, it generates jets of particles and then reenergizes them, suggests Stan E. …

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