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).
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The Burst Alert Telescope aboard the Neil Gehrels Swift Observatory continuously scans the sky producing one of the most sensitive all-sky surveys in the hard X-rays. The survey is especially useful at finding nearby active galaxies, even those obscured at other wavelengths by gas and dust. Using high resolution IR observations of active galaxies detetected with BAT, a team of astronomers found a surprising number of galaxies in the final stages of merging together into single, larger galaxies. Peering through thick walls of gas and dust surrounding the merging galaxies' messy cores, the research team captured pairs of supermassive black holes drawing closer together before they coalescence into one giant black hole. It is not easy to find galactic nuclei so close together. Most prior observations of merging galaxies have caught the coalescing black holes at earlier stages, when they were about 10 times farther away. When the black holes finally do collide, they will unleash enormous energy in the form of gravitational waves.
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About a year ago, astronomers excitedly reported the first detection of electromagnetic waves, or light, from a gravitational wave source. Now, a year later, researchers are announcing the existence of a cosmic relative to that historic event. GRB150101B was a gamma-ray burst that lasted less than a second, localized by the NASA's Neil Gehrels Swift Observatory in an old elliptical galaxy 1.7 billion years away. The apparent match between GRB 150101B and GW170817 is striking: both produced an unusually faint and short-lived gamma ray burst, and both were a source of bright, blue optical light lasting a few days, and X-ray emission lasted much longer. The host galaxies are also remarkably similar. Both are bright elliptical galaxies with a population of stars a few billion years old and displaying no evidence for new stars forming. A paper reporting the results was published today in Nature Communications.
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The Ultraviolet/Optical Telescope (UVOT) aboard the Neil Gehrels Swift Observatory captured its millionth image on May 13, 2018. It took an image of an active galaxy called 2MASX J16110570+0234002, which scientists think exhibited some unusual behavior. A mosaic, created using images UVOT has taken since Swift launched in 2004, celebrates this major milestone for the mission.
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