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. The Principal Investigator is Dr. Neil Gehrels (NASA-GSFC).
All Swift systems are operating normally.
Some 3.9 billion years ago in the heart of a distant galaxy, the intense tidal pull of a monster black hole shredded a star that passed too close. When X-rays produced in this event first reached Earth on March 28, 2011, they were detected by NASA's Swift satellite, which notified astronomers around the world. Within days, scientists concluded that the outburst, now known as Swift J1644+57, represented both the tidal disruption of a star and the sudden flare-up of a previously inactive black hole.
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Astronomers have discovered a vast cloud of high-energy particles called a wind nebula around a rare ultra-magnetic neutron star, or magnetar, for the first time. The newfound nebula surrounds a magnetar known as Swift J1834.9-0846 -- J1834.9 for short -- which was discovered by NASA's Swift satellite during a brief X-ray outburst. The find offers a unique window into the properties, environment and outburst history of magnetars, which are the strongest magnets in the universe.
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A new way to use the most powerful explosions in the Universe to calibrate its expansion has been developed by a team of researchers led by Marie Curie Outgoing Fellow at Stanford University, Maria Dainotti. Dainotti recently presented the results of her team's work at a press conference at the 228th meeting of the American Astronomical Society. Dainotti's three-dimensional analysis shows that a specific population of gamma-ray bursts can be used to provide an independent measurement of the cosmic distance scale. Since gamma-ray bursts are even brighter than supernovae, this new technique has the potential to extend the cosmic ruler to greater distances than are currently possible.
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