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.
GRBs usually only last a few seconds, but in very rare cases the gamma rays continue for hours. One such ultra-long duration GRB was picked up by the Swift satellite on 9 December 2011 and named GRB 111209A. It was both one of the longest and brightest GRBs ever observed. In the favoured scenario of a massive star collapse (sometimes known as a collapsar) the decay of radioactive nickel-56 formed in the GRB explosion powers a supernova emission, peaking in the optical several weeks after the GRB. But in the case of GRB 111209A ground-based observations showed that this could not be the case. Follow-up observations from ESO's La Silla and Paranal Observatories in Chile have for the first time demonstrated a link between this very long-lasting burst of gamma rays and an unusually bright supernova explosion. The results show that the supernova was not driven by radioactive decay, as expected, but was instead powered by the decaying super-strong magnetic fields around an exotic object called a magnetar. Magnetars are thought to be the most strongly magnetised objects in the known Universe. This is the first time that such an unambiguous connection between a GRB, a supernova and a magnetar has been possible.
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What looks like a shooting target is actually an image of nested rings of X-ray light centered on an erupting black hole. On June 15, NASA's Swift satellite detected the start of a new outburst from V404 Cygni, where a black hole and a sun-like star orbit each other. Since then, astronomers around the world have been monitoring the ongoing light show.
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