NASA detects the most powerful cosmic gamma-ray burst ever discovered

The high-energy radiation beam was 18 times stronger than the previous record.
Loukia Papadopoulos
An illustration of GRB 221009A.jpg
An illustration of GRB 221009A.


On Sunday, October 9th, astronomers around the world were privy to an unusually bright and long-lasting pulse of high-energy radiation that swept over Earth, according to a NASA statement published on Thursday. The source of the event was a gamma-ray burst (GRB), one of the most luminous events ever known.

A wave of X-rays and gamma rays passing through the solar system

Astronomers realized the event was taking place when NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope, Neil Gehrels Swift Observatory, and Wind spacecraft, as well as others, detected a wave of X-rays and gamma rays passing through the solar system.

They called the event the GRB 221009A, and it made for an unexpectedly exciting start to the 10th Fermi Symposium, now underway in Johannesburg, South Africa.

“It’s safe to say this meeting really kicked off with a bang – everyone’s talking about this,” said Judy Racusin, a Fermi deputy project scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, who is attending the conference.

The astronomers traced back the signal to the constellation Sagitta and estimate that it traveled 1.9 billion years to reach Earth. They believe it represents the beginnings of a new black hole formed by a massive star collapsing under its own weight. When this occurs, a nascent black hole drives powerful jets of particles traveling near the speed of light and piercing through the star, emitting X-rays and gamma rays.

NASA detects the most powerful cosmic gamma-ray burst ever discovered
Swift’s X-Ray Telescope captured the afterglow of GRB 221009A about an hour after it was first detected.

The event also provided an observing opportunity for a link between two experiments on the International Space Station: NASA’s NICER X-ray telescope and a Japanese detector called the Monitor of All-sky X-ray Image (MAXI). These two instruments brought together in April were dubbed the Orbiting High-energy Monitor Alert Network (OHMAN).

“OHMAN provided an automated alert that enabled NICER to follow up within three hours, as soon as the source became visible to the telescope,” said Zaven Arzoumanian, the NICER science lead at Goddard. “Future opportunities could result in response times of a few minutes."

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Providing useful new insights

This unique event provides new insights into stellar collapse, the birth of a black hole, the behavior and interaction of matter near the speed of light, the conditions in a distant galaxy and much more. The circumstances of its creation may not appear again for decades.

Fermi’s Large Area Telescope reported that it detected the burst for more than 10 hours partially because it lies relatively close to us.

“This burst is much closer than typical GRBs, which is exciting because it allows us to detect many details that otherwise would be too faint to see,” said Roberta Pillera, a Fermi LAT Collaboration member who led initial communications about the burst and a doctoral student at the Polytechnic University of Bari, Italy.

“But it’s also among the most energetic and luminous bursts ever seen regardless of distance, making it doubly exciting.”

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