London: A peculiar cosmic explosion, which was first detected by NASA’s Swift observatory on Christmas Day 2010, was caused either by a novel type of supernova billions of light-years away or an unusual collision within our own galaxy.
Gamma-ray bursts (GRBs) are the universe’s most luminous explosions, emitting more energy in a few seconds than our sun will during its entire energy-producing lifetime. What astronomers are calling the “Christmas burst” is so unusual that it can be modelled in such radically different ways.
“What the Christmas burst seems to be telling us is that the family of gamma-ray bursts is more diverse than we fully appreciate,” Christina Thoene, the lead author, at the Institute of Astrophysics of Andalusia in Granada, Spain, said.
“It’s only by rapidly detecting hundreds of them, as Swift is doing, that we can catch some of the more eccentric siblings,” she said.
Common to both scenarios is the presence of a neutron star, the crushed core that forms when a star many times the sun’s mass explodes. When the star’s fuel is exhausted, it collapses under its own weight, compressing its core so much that about a half-million times Earth’s mass is squeezed into a sphere no larger than a city.
“Christmas burst”, also known as GRB 101225A, was discovered in the constellation Andromeda by Swift’s Burst Alert Telescope at 1:38 p.m. EST on Dec. 25, 2010. The gamma-ray emission lasted at least 28 minutes, which is unusually long. Follow-up observations of the burst’s afterglow by the Hubble Space Telescope and ground-based observatories were unable to determine the object’s distance.
Thoene’s team proposes that the burst occurred in an exotic binary system where a neutron star orbited a normal star that had just entered its red giant phase, enormously expanding its outer atmosphere. This expansion engulfed the neutron star, resulting in both the ejection of the giant’s atmosphere and rapid tightening of the neutron star’s orbit.
Once the two stars became wrapped in a common envelope of gas, the neutron star may have merged with the giant’s core after just five orbits, or about 18 months. The end result of the merger was the birth of a black hole and the production of oppositely directed jets of particles moving at nearly the speed of light, followed by a weak supernova.
The particle jets produced gamma rays. Jet interactions with gas ejected before the merger explain many of the burst’s signature oddities. Based on this interpretation, the event took place about 5.5 billion light-years away, and the team has detected what may be a faint galaxy at the right location.
The study has been recently published in the journal Nature.