An explosion 4 billion light years from Earth released more energy than the Sun can generate in its entire lifespan

(Representative image) Gamma-ray bursts can be triggered by the explosion of a dying, super massive star, collapsing into a black hole. DESY, Science Communication Lab
  • Scientists have recorded the biggest gamma ray burst (GRB) to date in the universe.
  • The energy released for greater than what the Sun can generate in its entire 10 billion-year lifespan.
  • The explosion occurred 4 billion light years from Earth.

Four billion light years away from Earth, there was an explosion so big that it generated more energy than the Sun can generate in its entire 10 billion-year lifespan.

Gamma rays are some of the most energetic and explosive phenomena in the universe. On 14 January 2019, scientists detected the biggest gamma ray burst (GRB) till date. The outbreak was a billion times brighter than visible light, according to results published in Nature.

GRB 190114C was spotted using Major Atmospheric Gamma Imaging Cherenkov (MAGIC) telescopes on the Canary Islands.

GRB 190114C as imaged by the Hubble Space Telescope. The gamma ray burst was centred in the green circle, about 800 light years from the host galaxy’s core.NASA, ESA, and V. Acciari et al.

“Gamma-ray bursts are the most powerful explosions known in the universe and typically release more energy in just a few seconds than our Sun during its entire lifetime – they can shine through almost the entire visible universe,” explained David Berge, head of gamma-ray astronomy at DESY.

Looking for explosions

Normally, ground telescopes don’t detect GRBs because most of the high energy radiation is absorbed by the Earth’s atmosphere. Instead, astronomers watch out for signs on Cherenkov radiation — a blue glow that results from GRBs slamming into other atoms and molecules.

Mechanics of a gamma ray burstGoddard Space Flight Center

This means that as the GRB hits Earth, the collision can trigger a ‘shower’ of subatomic particles in the planet’s upper atmosphere.

But GRBs don’t come with a lot of advance warning and only last a few seconds.

The MAGIC telescopes began their observation in record time. It took only 57 seconds from when the GRBs were detected for the telescopes to position themselves and start recording the observations.

The bigger question

Even though it’s the first time that such kind of energy has been recorded, scientists still don’t know how such extreme energies are generated.

An artist’s impression of a gamma ray burst triggered by a supernova explosion in which a doomed star’s core collapses to form a black hole. NASA, ESA and M. Kornmesser

It’s commonly believed that GRBs are a result of massive stars collapsing into themselves to form blackholes. GRBs could also be the result of neutron stars colliding into one another. Basically, any instance where an atomic nuclei is in decay — gamma rays are a by-product.

On Earth, gamma rays are emitted during the nuclear fission phase of nuclear explosions.

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