Astronomers around the world weigh in on one of the most intense gamma-ray bursts ever

It came from the constellation Sagitta more than 2 billion years ago.
Loukia Papadopoulos
An illustration of GRB 221009A.jpg
An illustration of GRB 221009A


Earlier this month, on October 9th, one of the most intense gamma ray bursts hit the Earth. It was spotted by a number of space telescopes including Nasa’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope, and China’s High Energy Burst Searcher (HEBS) and Hard X-ray Modulation Telescope (Insight-HXMT), according to an article by the South China Morning Post (SCMP) published on Friday. The telescopes were scanning the skies for cosmic explosions and now their scientists are weighing in on the incredible discovery.

A massive star at the end of its life

The vision came from the constellation Sagitta where a massive star at the end of its life exploded and collapsed into a black hole, ejecting a jet of light into space more than 2 billion years ago. The burst of light it produced was so intense that it blinded the detectors of some telescopes, told the SCMP HEBS chief scientist Xiong Shaolin, who is from the Institute of High Energy Physics at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing.

Astronomers named the event GRB 221009A and they report that it was at least 10 times brighter than previous gamma-ray bursts. The scientists speculate that it also released the same amount of energy that would take thousands of suns their entire lifetimes to generate.

The event produced a maximum energy level that broke the previous record detected by the Major Atmospheric Gamma Imaging Cherenkov (MAGIC) telescopes in Spain in 2019. The event was 10 times more powerful than its predecessor. This was especially impressive since high-energy particles are usually absorbed by starlight on their way to Earth making them impossible to identify.

China’s Large High Altitude Air Shower Observatory (Lhaaso), located on the Tibetan Plateau in Sichuan province, was able to confirm that the event was indeed a powerful gamma-ray burst. Lhaaso chief scientist Cao Zhen called the event “totally unexpected and extraordinary."

Razmik Mirzoyan at the Max Planck Institute of Physics in Munich, Germany, further stated that Lhaaso’s input was crucial to spotting the cosmic explosion.

“Lhaaso’s wide field of view, combined with its sensitivity, makes it a very powerful detector for measuring diverse classes of cosmic and gamma rays at very high energies,” he said.

An extremely rare event

Shaolin added that the event was indeed very rare. “Actually it’s one of the closest gamma-ray bursts that has ever happened – something that only occurs every few decades or even once a century,” he said.

The next steps now are for astronomers around the world to work together to better understand GRB 221009A, using data from both the explosion and the afterglow that followed it..

“In an event like this, a supernova is expected to show up about two weeks after the explosion,” said Bing Zhang from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

The event highlights the amazing discoveries that can be made when scientists worldwide join forces and work toward a common goal.

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