Skip to Main Content

Blasts From the Past

Pin it

space science news home

Blasts From the Past: High-Redshift Burst is the Latest Piece in 30-year Trail of Discovery

Keck Observatory view of the explosion and fadeMay 6, 1998: After nearly 30 years of intense debate and scientific inquiry, scientists finally know the answer to the question "Where are the Gamma-Ray Bursts?", and can now move on to answer the question "What causes them?" Recent discoveries in this field by a collection of international astronomers, including the announcement today of a high-redshift burst, have demonstrated that these bursts are from the most remote parts of the universe. Every burst, of which about one per day is detected, releases perhaps as much energy in 10 seconds as the Sun emits in its entire 10-billion-year lifetime. This week, astronomers from the California Institute of Technology announced yet another breakthrough discovery which adds to the body of research, much of which has been done by scientists working in the Space Sciences Laboratory of the NASA/Marshall Space Flight Center, indicating that these "blasts from the past" are indeed the most powerful explosions in the Universe. Here, we briefly summarize the flurry of recent activity - both in space and on the ground - that has led us to the resolution of a 30 year mystery in astrophysics. A brief history...

Check out BATSE.COM to learn more about this exciting research!

Gamma-ray bursts (GRBs for short) are brief flashes of high-energy radiation that appear on average about once a day at an unpredictable time from unpredictable directions in the sky. Since their discovery (by accident) in the late 1960's, several thousand bursts have been detected, most of them with BATSE, the Burst and Transient Source Experiment, on board the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory. Their distribution on the sky is completely uniform. In particular, they do not appear to come from the Milky Way. So where do they come from? This is the question that had kept astronomers busy for several decades, with no apparent resolution in sight. 

What we thought...

Between the time of the discovery of bursts in the late 1960's, and the launch of the BATSE experiment in 1991, most astronomers were convinced that bursts originated in our own Galaxy, on or near objects called neutron stars. Our Milky Way Galaxy contains many neutron stars, objects as massive as the Sun (about 300,000 times the mass of the Earth) but no bigger than about 10 kilometers in diameter. Their tremendous gravitational field and magnetic field made them an ideal source for the gamma-ray bursts.

Why we built BATSE...


See how the Gamma Ray Observatory
was put together

The BATSE experiment on GRO was built with every intention of confirming this theory.  It was believed that with BATSE's increased sensitivity, we would be able to see the faint gamma-ray bursts map out the Milky Way on the sky, the same way the stars appear to do so when you get away from the city lights and can see fainter objects.

This concept is demonstrated in the accompanying figure. At the top, we see a schematic of our Galaxy's disk, with the Earth and BATSE located at the star. If we were not able to see very far out into space, symbolized by the first circle, we have the situation shown in the first set of plots. We see bursts in every direction equally. At the same time, we see there is no detectable edge and the brightness distribution of bursts follows a special curve indicating homogeneity. This is because our small inner circle is, to first order, filled uniformly with bursts.

On the other hand, if we can see out of the disk of the Galaxy, such as in the case of the outer circle, the bursts do not appear uniform on the sky, and the distribution shows a deficit of weak bursts, because there are not very many bursts located near the edge of the second circle.

Uh-oh...

This appealing idea was confronted with reality in 1992, when it became clear from BATSE observations that GRBs are distributed uniformly on the sky, without a concentration to the plane of the Milky Way, or towards its center or in other clumps of or concentrations. In fact, the distribution is almost perfectly random.

By itself, the angular distribution could lead one to argue that perhaps we see the bursts coming from quite nearby, from distances small compared to the thickness of the disk of the Milky Way. However, this would imply, as we saw above, that in no direction do we start to see the edge of the GRB distribution, or in this case, the edge of the Milky Way disk. Such an edge would reveal itself in the distribution of brightnesses of bursts, which would show a deficit of faint bursts.

But this is contradicted by the observed brightness distribution of GRBs, which shows a distinct dearth of very weak GRBs: it is as though in all directions we do see that edge.

What to do??

The combined angular and brightness distributions of bursts eliminates the possibility that GRBs come from the disk of the Milky Way, and left astronomers with a choice between one of two possibilities:

  • GRBs originate either in a very large spherical halo (or corona) around the Galaxy, or
  • They come from the far depths of the Universe, billions of light years away from us.

The galactic halo would have to be very big, about a million light years across, which is much bigger than the diameter of the known Milky Way system (which is less than a hundred thousand light years), much less the halo that the Milky Way is known to have. The very large halo size is required to avoid an asymmetry in the GRB sky distribution caused by the fact that the Earth is offset from the center of the Galaxy, by about 25,000 light years.

In the case of the other distance scale (referred to by astronomers as "cosmological") it is the smoothness of the GRB sky distribution that tells us that their distances must exceed the length scales over which the distribution of matter appears clumpy, i.e., larger than clusters and superclusters of galaxies, and the voids between them.

This implies distances measured in billions of light years.

At such large distances the effect of the expansion of the Universe becomes noticeable. An important effect of this expansion is the redshift of light (and gamma rays) and the apparent slowing down of clocks, both of which would cause a change in the brightness distribution very similar to what BATSE actually observes. Scientists have looked at the bursts for these cosmological effects, and some have reported seeing time dilation (weak bursts, which are presumably farther away, are, on average, longer than the strong, nearby bursts) and others report energy shifting, where the distribution of gamma-rays in faint bursts appears shifted to lower energies compared to strong bursts. In general the BATSE data seemed to be hinting at a cosmological origin, but it couldn't be proved more directly.

The key to nailing the cosmological hypothesis seemed to hinge on the ability to find a counterpart to a burst in a region of the spectrum outside of the gamma-rays. These counterparts would have the positional accuracies to link the GRB, for instance, to a faint galaxy, or allow the measurement of a redshift from an optical spectrum. Conversely, these would not be seen if GRBs came from a big galactic halo.

At last, a clue!!!

Finding such counterparts has recently become possible with the detection of GRBs with the Wide Field Camera (WFC) on board of the Italian-Dutch X-ray satellite BeppoSAX, which can pinpoint a GRB on the sky to within a circle with a diameter of 6 arcminutes (20 percent of the diameter of the full moon), and not only that, but can provide that position within a matter of hours, much faster than was possible before. This error box, if known sufficiently rapidly, is small enough that optical and radio telescopes can be used to search it for the presence of transient emission that may be connected with the GRB.

This WFC is sensitive to X rays, and can view a 40 by 40 degrees field of view, within which it can locate X-ray sources with several arcminute accuracy.

To know whether or not a GRB occurred in the field of view a Gamma-Ray Burst Monitor (GRBM) on BeppoSAX is employed, whose data are searched for GRBs every satellite orbit of 1.5 hours. When a GRB is found the WFC data are searched, and an accurate position can be determined, which is then quickly dispatched to astronomers around the world.

The first time this worked out successfully was on February 28, 1997, when a GRB was detected coming from the constellation Orion. Within 21 hours after this burst a team of astronomers from the University of Alabama in Huntsville and the University of Amsterdam used the 4.2 meter William Herschel Telescope on La Palma (one of the Canary Islands in the Atlantic Ocean, West of the North Africa) to make images of the BeppoSAX GRB location. They did the same about a week later. A comparison of these images immediately revealed one star that was present on February 28, which had disappeared a week later.

In the meantime the Beppo SAX astronomers had used a more precise X-ray instrument on their satellite to also observe the GRB location in detail, and they found that it contained a weak decaying X-ray source, with a position (accurate to somewhat less than an arcminute) that coincided with that of the optical star that disappeared. Clearly, the X-ray and optical afterglow of a GRB had been detected for the first time. Further conformation that the decaying X-ray and optical signals came from one and the same source was obtained from X-ray images taken with the ROSAT satellite, which located the X-ray afterglow with an accuracy of some 10 arcseconds: it still coincided with the optical afterglow.

As soon as the disappearing optical afterglow was discovered, very deep optical images were made of it with the ESO New Technology Telescope and the Keck Telescope, which showed that at the location of the optical transient there was a very weak object that looked slightly extended, quite possibly a weak galaxy.

In a matter of weeks two observations were made with the Hubble Space Telescope, which showed that the fading optical transient consists of a point source (its fading between two HST observations shows it is the GRB counterpart) and an extended source ('fuzz') at whose edge it appears to be located. Although they don't constitute solid proof, these observations naturally fit the idea that the GRB of February 28, 1997 went off in a faraway faint galaxy (the fuzz).

And Another!!!

click for KPNO reportThe next major step forward occurred with a burst that was observed with the WFC on May 8, 1997. A faint optical variable source was detected at the GRB location by H. Bond of the STScI, using a 36 inch telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory. A spectrum of this object taken by M. Metzger of Caltech and his collaborators with the Keck telescope showed that the presence of absorption lines, which are redshifted by 0.83 (i.e., their wavelengths are 1.83 times their value measured in the laboratory). The case for the long distance scale appears now to be settled.

At left, the optical source is identified by the lines in the top image. In the bottom image, the counterpart is nearly invisible. Courtesy Kitt Peak National Observatory.

Finally, for this GRB of May 8, D. Frail of the National Radio Astronomical Observatory discovered the first radio emission associated with any GRB.

And Now The Clincher!!!

In the May 7, 1998 edition of Nature, Shrinivas Kulkarni of Caltech and his colleagues used the 10-meter Keck Telescope in Hawaii, and NASA's Hubble Space Telescope to study the position of a similar burst detected by BATSE and BeppoSAX on the 14th of December 1997. What they have concluded is that this object possesses a redshift of over 3.4 - a colossal distance of more than 12 billion light years away. This is over a million times farther than astronomers had theorized the bursts might lie when the BATSE experiment was built and launched in 1991. See the NASA press release for more information. Keck images of Dec 97 GRB optical counterpart
Keck telescope view of optical counterpart


This plot shows how the gamma-ray intensity of GRB971214 evolved with time, as observed with the BATSE detectors onboard NASA's Compton Gamma-Ray Observatory. Explanation of the rapid variability in its gamma-ray brightness presents a tough challenge to astrophysicists. The afterglow from this explosion was later observed in other wavelengths, allowing for a measurement of its distance from Earth.

What artist's concept of a cosmic explosionMight the Future Hold?

After 30 years, it is clear that gamma-ray bursts represent the most powerful explosions in the universe. On a daily basis, we have the opportunity to sample the most remote reaches of space, simply by detecting and analyzing these bursts. Because of their tremendous luminosity, and their tremendous distance, gamma-ray bursts stand to offer insight into some of the most fundamental questions in astronomy and astrophysics:

  • How big is the Universe?
  • How old is the Universe?
  • How fast is it expanding?
  • Is this expansion speeding up or slowing down?
  • Will the Universe continue to expand, or will it eventually stop expanding and begin to contract?


Stay tuned, there's more science to come from these prodigious blasts of energy!!!

Recent headlines on Gamma-Ray Bursts

BATSE Detects 2000th Cosmic Gamma-Ray Burst Dec 15, 1997
Gamma Ray Bursts are 1 in 100: Mystery tops Discover Magazine's "Top 100" Science Stories for 1997 Dec 10, 1997
Hubble Confirms Fading Burst Source, and news from the 4th Huntsville Gamma Ray Burst Symposium Sept 17, 1997
Counterpart Discoveries Show Gamma-Ray Bursts ARE Cosmological June 11, 1997
Discovery may be "Smoking Gun" in Gamma Ray Burst Mystery Mar 31, 1997
Gamma-Ray Bursts Thought to be from Edge of Universe Jan 15, 1997


flash!Join our growing list of subscribers - sign up for our express news delivery and you will receive a mail message every time we post a new story!!!


More AstronomyHeadlines


return to Space Science Home

Authors: Dr. John M. Horack, Dr. Chryssa Kouveliotou
Curator: Linda Porter
NASA Official: Gregory S. Wilson