The Neil Gehrels Swift Observatory

The Neil Gehrels Swift Observatory

Swift satellite artists conception 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. Brad Cenko (NASA-GSFC).

NASA's Swift Catches First Ultraviolet Light from a Gravitational-Wave Event
NASA's Swift Reveals a Blue Kilonova from the Collision of Two Neutron Stars
On 2017 October 16th, the advanced LIGO and Virgo gravitational wave observatories announced the discovery of a new type of gravitational wave signal, likely caused by the collision of two neutron stars. The gravitational wave event occurred on 2017 August 17th, and was accompanied by a gamma-ray burst of short duration. Astronomers across the world began searching for the precise location of this event, quickly tracking it down to the nearby galaxy NGC 4993. Once pin-pointed, the Swift satellite quickly maneuvered to look at the object with its X-ray and UV/optical telescopes. The spacecraft saw no X-rays - a surprise for an event that produced higher-energy gamma rays. Instead, it found a bright and quickly fading flash of ultraviolet (UV) light. This bright UV signal was unexpected and revealed unprecedented details about the aftermath of the collision. The short-lived UV pulse likely came from material blown away by the short-lived disk of debris that powered the gamma-ray burst. The rapid fading of the UV signal suggests that this outflow was expanding with a velocity close to a tenth of the speed of light. The results of the Swift observations were published today on the journal Science. The discovery of this powerful wind was only possible using light, which is why combining gravitational waves and light in what we call 'multi-messenger astronomy' is so important. Credit: NASA/Swift

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Latest Swift News

Oct 8, 2019

Astronomers Find New Evidence for a Kilonova in Old Swift Data

GRB 070809 is a short duration gamma-ray burst discovered by the Neil Gehrels Swift Observatory in August 2007. Very recently, a team of astronomers, led by Zhi-Ping Jin from Purple Mountain Observatory, showed that the optical light from GRB070809 had a peculiar behavior. Its luminosity and red color appear different than the standard afterglow emission seen by the X-ray Telescope aboard Swift. Instead, the optical light can be naturally interpreted as a kilonova (also known as macronova), a kind of transient powered by the radioactive decay of heavy elements synthesized in the ejecta of a neutron star collision. The kilonova signal was identified at a distance larger than 1 Gpc, well beyond the reach of the second-generation gravitational wave detectors.
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Sep 27, 2019

NASA's Swift Reveals Depressure in a Galaxy Cluster

Galaxy clusters are some of the largest cosmic structures, made of hundreds to thousands of galaxies. They are generally thought to have nearly identical structure and radial profiles. Using NASA's Neil Gehrels Swift Observatory observations of the nearby galaxy cluster CL2015 (Abell 117, z=0.05), researchers found a cluster that does not follow this universal profile: it displays a very low pressure for a cluster of its mass. The low pressure profile of CL2015 is likely due to the low concentration of its matter distribution, i.e. a lack of mass in the cluster center. A paper describing these results is being published in the Astronomy and Astrophysics Journal.

Sep 26, 2019

NASA's Swift and TESS Observe a Star-shredding Black Hole

For the first time, NASA's planet-hunting Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) watched a black hole tear apart a star in a cataclysmic phenomenon called a tidal disruption event. Follow-up observations by NASA's Neil Gehrels Swift Observatory and other facilities have produced the most detailed look yet at the early moments of one of these star-destroying occurrences.
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