Gamma-ray bursts (GRBs) are the most powerful explosions the Universe has seen since the Big Bang. They occur approximately once per day and are brief, but intense, flashes of gamma radiation. They come from all different directions of the sky and last from a few milliseconds to a few hundred seconds. So far scientists do not know what causes them. Do they signal the birth of a black hole in a massive stellar explosion? Are they the product of the collision of two neutron stars? Or is it some other exotic phenomenon that causes these bursts?
With Swift, a NASA mission with international participation, scientists have a tool dedicated to answering these questions and solving the gamma-ray burst mystery. Its three instruments give scientists the ability to scrutinize gamma-ray bursts like never before. Within seconds of detecting a burst, Swift relays its location to ground stations, allowing both ground-based and space-based telescopes around the world the opportunity to observe the burst's afterglow. Swift is part of NASA's medium explorer (MIDEX) program and was launched into a low-Earth orbit on a Delta 7320 rocket on November 20, 2004.
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The past week was a fortunate week for the Swift satellite, which discovered two of the most distant Gamma-ray Bursts (GRBs) ever seen. Ground-based spectroscopic observations of the long duration GRB 140304A and GRB 140311A found redshifts of z=5.28 and z=4.95, corresponding to distances of 12.55 and 12.45 billion light-years. The two GRBs happened when the Universe was only about 8% of its present age. Thanks to their bright afterglows, GRBs can be detected up to high redshifts, providing a unique probe of the early Universe. However, such distant events are rare, and Swift has found them at a rate of only 1 or 2 per year. A larger population of such objects will provide a rich legacy to trace the evolution of star formation, reionization, and metallicity in the early Universe.
An exceptionally close stellar explosion discovered on Jan. 21 has become the focus of observatories around and above the globe, including several NASA spacecraft. The blast, designated SN 2014J, occurred in the galaxy M82 and lies only about 12 million light-years away. This makes it the nearest optical supernova in two decades and potentially the closest type Ia supernova to occur during the life of currently operating space missions.
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Recent observations by NASA's Swift spacecraft have provided scientists a unique glimpse into the activity at the center of our galaxy and led to the discovery of a rare celestial entity that may help them test predictions of Albert Einstein's theory of general relativity.
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