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Gamma-ray bursts to take center stage at international meeting

5th Huntsville Gamma Ray Burst Symposium set for Oct. 18-22


Oct. 11, 1999: Gamma-ray bursts used to be a rather esoteric field of astrophysics. Bursts were interesting, partly because they were so elusive. But they were a quirk that didn't command the same attention as bigger, better-known phenomena. Today they often command significant observing time by the Hubble Space Telescope and the Keck Observatory, the two optical telescopes most in demand by astronomers.

Right: GRB 971215 (discovered Dec. 15, 1997) apparently lies 12 billion light years from Earth, as determined from spectra taken by the Keck Observatory in Hawaii.. Credit: Space Telescope Science Institute

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Observations and discoveries over the last three years have made gamma-ray bursts front page news, reshaping our perception of how they fit into the grand scheme of the universe.

Later this month, more than 200 scientists will gather to discuss their findings and their plans for unraveling more about these mysterious bursts of energy.

"The exciting thing is that we will have scientists from lots of different astronomical fields, not just high-energy astrophysics," said Dr. Valerie Connaughton, a member of the organizing committee for the 5th Huntsville Gamma Ray Burst Symposium. "We also have optical [visible light] and radio astronomers planning to attend."


Connaughton is an astrophysicist working at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center. The 5th Huntsville Gamma Ray Burst Symposium will be held Oct. 18-22 at the Huntsville Hilton Hotel under the sponsorship of NASA/Marshall and the Universities Space Research Association.

Left: Artwork for 5th Huntsville Gamma Ray Burst Symposium symbolizes the brightness profiles of bursts and their distribution across the sky. Credit: NASA/Marshall.

Gamma-ray bursts have puzzled scientists since they were discovered in the late 1960s by satellites watching for nuclear weapons tests in space. They recorded bursts of radiation in gamma rays, the highest part of the electromagnetic spectrum, but not lower down. And the bursts appeared to be coming from outside the solar system. Their appearances and locations were random and not associated with any known object.


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As other spacecraft observed bursts and the puzzle deepened, NASA decided to include a dedicated instrument, the Burst and Transient Source Experiment, on the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory.

"BATSE would detect bursts with unprecedented sensitivity so that by studying their distribution in the sky, we could establish their origins in our galaxy," Connaughton said of early hopes for BATSE.

Instead, scientists got an even deeper mystery. Bursts flashed and faded in a matter of seconds or minutes, too quick to aim a telescope for follow-up observations. And they appeared to be distributed outside the galaxy and probably deep in the universe.


The big break came in 1997 when Dr. Jan van Paradijs of the University of Amsterdam, using observations by the Beppo SAX satellite and ground-based observatories, tied a burst on Feb. 28, 1997 to a source deep in space. The Feb. 28 burst was the big news at the 4th Huntsville Gamma Ray Burst Symposium in September 1997.

Right: Yellow circles highlight positions of four BATSE instruments on the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory. The other four are on the lower side of the spacecraft. This gives BATSE a continual view of the entire sky, as symbolized by the octahedron (left). Credit: NASA/Marshall.

"The sense of the community is that the doubt is over," said Dr. Chip Meegan, a BATSE coinvestigator at NASA/Marshall, before the 1997 symposium. "Gamma ray bursts are cosmological." That means that instead of coming from within our galaxy or even immediately around the galaxy, they are deep in space, probably more than 8 billion light years away (by comparison, our galaxy is about 150,000 light years across).

"But they're still very strange," Meegan continued. "All of the questions about them being cosmological are still there." The principal question is, what produces so much energy?

The questions still stand and will be discussed, along with findings from the past two years of observations at the 5th Huntsville Gamma Ray Burst Symposium.

Left: A galactic map shows the locations of 2,512 bursts detected by BATSE since April 1991. A simple mathematical analysis demonstrates that the distribution is random, thus showing that bursts are scattered throughout the universe and not associated with our galaxy (that would be indicated by bursts clustering along the galactic equator). The array of clumps and open spots is a result of this randomness. A truly even distribution would be suspect. Larger versions are available from the BATSE web site. Credit: NASA/Marshall.


Web Links
Burst and Transient Source Experiment web site includes links to work with BATSE and to the 5th Huntsville Gamma Ray Burst Symposium.
Scientists catch another gamma-ray burster in visible light - May 18, 1999. Several telescopes observe optical counterpart
Cosmic Gamma Ray Bursts NEWS & RESEARCH
GOTCHA! The Big One That Didn't Get Away - Jan. 27, 1999. For the first time, images of visible light from a gamma ray explosion is captured by a robotic telescope.
Gamma-ray Bursters cross the 'Line of Death' - Oct. 13, 1998. A study of gamma ray burst spectra shows one more thing that these mysterious, cosmological gamma ray bursts are not.
Blast from the past: the latest clue in solving the gamma-ray burst mystery (May 6, 1998).
Gamma-ray burst identification earns top prize (Jan. 12, 1998)
Twinkle, twinkle, massive fireball - reports from the 4th Huntsville Gamma-ray Burst Symposium (Sept. 17, 1997)
Discovery may be "smoking gun" in gamma-ray mystery (March 31, 1997).
Large-format BATSE sky maps in PostScript, PDF, and TIFF formats.
"The supernova crowd will be there since we have a tentative association between supernovae and gamma-ray bursts," Connaughton said. "There's been lots of speculation by astronomers active in supernova research as well as those active in gamma-ray bursts."

If the two are associated, then what special conditions lead to a supernova expending such a phenomenal amount of energy mainly in the gamma-ray spectrum yet hiding or muting itself in visible light until weeks later?

In January, the Robotic Optical Transient Search Experiment at Los Alamos National Laboratory, cued by BATSE, caught the optical flash within 20 seconds of a gamma-ray flash being recorded. But many other attempts to catch optical transients coincident with the gamma-ray emissions have been fruitless.

"There is a really intense debate as to whether these optical flashes happen with all bursts," Connaughton noted.

Another topic that has grown enough to warrant its own discussion is Soft Gamma Repeaters (SGRs). Where true gamma-ray bursters are distant and never repeat (the blast is so energetic that it shreds the source object), SGRs are within our galaxy and repeat at unpredictable times.



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