On April 23, NASA's Swift satellite detected the strongest, hottest, and longest-lasting sequence of stellar flares ever seen from a nearby red dwarf star. The initial blast from this record-setting series of explosions was as much as 10,000 times more powerful than the largest solar flare ever recorded.
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NASA received 165 proposals, requesting a total observing time of 14.1 Ms and $5.3M in funds for 1,044 targets. Considering PIs and Co-Is, about 500 individual scientists responded to the Swift Cycle 11 call. The Swift Cycle 11 Peer Review will be held in December to evaluate the merits of submitted proposals. Results will be posted in late December 2014.
Astronomers analyzing a long-lasting blast of high-energy light observed in 2013 report finding features strikingly similar to those expected from an explosion from the universe's earliest stars. If this interpretation is correct, the outburst validates ideas about a recently identified class of gamma-ray burst and serves as a stand-in for what future observatories may see as the last acts of the first stars.
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In late May, NASA's Swift satellite imaged comet Siding Spring, which will brush astonishingly close to Mars later this year. These optical and ultraviolet observations are the first to reveal how rapidly the comet is producing water and allow astronomers to better estimate its size.
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Jamie Kennea and David Burrows (PSU) report on behalf of the Swift/XRT team:
At 17:58 UT on June 10th, 2014, Swift's X-ray Telescope (XRT) was commanded into Auto State, returning it to a normal observing setup. This means that Photon Counting (PC) mode data will now be taken with bias subtraction turned on and the low energy cut-off returned to the nominal value. Any PC mode data taken between 00:22 UT on June 4th, 2014, and 17:58 UT on June 10th should be treated with caution due to the lack of bias subtraction. Data taken in Windowed Timing mode during this period were not affected.
While we have implemented a method to work around the anomaly, we continue to investigate its cause. This may require short periods of downtime for XRT while we run diagnostic tests, which may interrupt some observations. We expect the overall downtime due to these tests to be low (<5%). We apologize in advance for any observations that are interrupted.
David Burrows and Jamie Kennea, on behalf of the XRT team, report: At 00:23 UT on June 4, 2014, the Swift XRT instrument rebooted and since then has not been operating normally. It is currently in MANUAL State and is not collecting science data while we run tests to debug and fix the problem. In the process of these tests, some data are being collected. PC mode data collected in this configuration are not properly calibrated and should not be used for anything but source positions. PC mode spectral calibration will be compromised until bias maps can once again be taken. WT mode data collected during this period appear to be usable.
Every two years the NASA Science Mission Directorate (SMD) conducts comparative reviews of operating missions. A Senior Review panel is convened to evaluate the performance of each mission, including its scientific merit, technical status, and cost efficiency. Swift was ranked first among the nine operating missions in its panel. The Senior Review overall assessment states that "Swift continues to provide unique and exciting science both as stand-alone results and as part of multi-wavelength campaigns. The multitude of science produced with Swift addresses many of the themes and objectives of NASA and Decadal Surveys." The Swift mission is slated to continue through 2018, with the last two years to be reviewed again in 2016.
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A new study published in the journal Nature reports for the first time a high degree of circular polarization in the afterglow of a GRB. Swift detected GRB 121024A and rapidly discovered the afterglow in X-rays and optical light. Based on the initial brightness of the optical afterglow, an international team of astronomers determined the optical polarization using the Very Large Telescope. Current theories for afterglow emission all agree that there should be no circular polarization in visible light. The results are therefore surprising, and raise questions about our understanding of afterglow emission and particle acceleration in relativistic shocks.
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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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