A newly-observed Gamma-ray burst might be the brightest space explosion ever seen

One group of scientists refers to its as the "BOAT", or "Brightest Of All Time."
Chris Young
The Neil Gehrels Swift Observatory's image of the GRB.
The Neil Gehrels Swift Observatory's image of the GRB.

NASA/Swift/A. Beardmore (University of Leicester)  

A number of space and ground-based telescopes observed one of the brightest space explosions ever witnessed on October 9.

The dramatic event was classified as a Gamma-ray burst, or GRB, which is one of the most powerful known types of explosions in the universe, as per NASA.

It was so powerful that scientists could still observe the aftereffects of the explosion, dubbed GRB 221009A, hours after it was first detected. A group of scientists now refers to it as the “brightest of all time”, or the “BOAT” and it might be the most powerful cosmic explosion since the Big Bang.

An "exceptionally long" Gamma-ray burst

Scientists believe the explosion was caused when a star, roughly 2.4 billion light-years away in the Sagitta constellation, collapsed and went supernova before becoming a black hole. The star in question was likely many times larger than our Sun.

“The exceptionally long GRB 221009A is the brightest GRB ever recorded, and its afterglow is smashing all records at all wavelengths,” said Brendan O’Connor, a doctoral student at the University of Maryland and George Washington University in Washington, DC, in a statement.

“Because this burst is so bright and also nearby, we think this is a once-in-a-century opportunity to address some of the most fundamental questions regarding these explosions, from the formation of black holes to tests of dark matter models.”

When the gamma rays and X-rays from GRB 221009A reached our solar system, they first set off detectors installed on space-based observatories, including NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope, the Neil Gehrels Swift Observatory, and the Wind spacecraft. Moments later, they reached ground-based telescopes like the Gemini South telescope in Chile.

What is a Gamma-ray burst?

A Gamma-ray burst is the strongest and brightest type of explosion ever seen by scientists, meaning GRB 221009A is the brightest of the brightest. They last only a few seconds but, during this time, they emit as much energy as is produced by stars like our Sun through their entire lifespans. They are thought to occur during the formation of black holes.

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The first-ever Gamma-ray burst observed by humans was detected in 1967 by a U.S. Air Force satellite called Vela. That satellite was designed to detect Russian nuclear tests. Instead, it picked up one of the most spectacular known sources of electromagnetic radiation known to humankind.

The "Brightest Of All Time"

Though GRB 221009A occurred some 2.4 billion light-years away, it's relatively close in astronomical terms. This, in part, accounts for its brightness and how long-lasting the aftermath of the explosion was — the Fermi telescope, for example, still detected the burst more than 10 hours after it was first observed.

“In our research group, we’ve been referring to this burst as the "BOAT," or Brightest Of All Time, because when you look at the thousands of bursts gamma-ray telescopes have been detecting since the 1990s, this one stands apart,” Jillian Rastinejad, a doctoral student at Northwestern University in Illinois who led one of the teams using the Gemini South telescope, explained as per a CNN report.

The burst also allowed two devices aboard the International Space Station (ISS) — the Neutron star Interior Composition Explorer (NICER) X-ray telescope and Japan’s Monitor of All-sky X-ray Image (MAXI) — to work together for the first time to observe GRB 221009A three hours after it was detected. Observations from the many space and ground observatories at our disposal allow astronomers to analyze signatures of any heavy elements released by these space phenomena and learn about the massive reverberating effects of the explosions, including the widespread formation of colossal black holes throughout the cosmos.

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