Astronomers have observed the brightest flash of light ever seen, from an event that occurred 2.4 billion light years from Earth and was likely triggered by the formation of a black hole.

Key takeaways

  • Astronomers observed the brightest flash of light ever seen, caused by a gamma-ray burst from 2.4 billion light years away.
  • The burst was likely triggered by a dying star collapsing into a black hole, emitting a jet of energy.
  • The gamma-ray burst emitted photons with a record 18 teraelectronvolts of energy, affecting Earth’s ionosphere.
  • Such an intense gamma-ray burst is a once-in-a-century event, releasing energy comparable to the Sun’s lifetime output in seconds.
  • Scientists are studying the afterglow to understand black hole formation and supernova explosions, looking for traces of heavy metals like gold and platinum.

The burst of gamma rays, the most powerful type of electromagnetic radiation, was observed by orbiting telescopes on October 9, and its afterglow is currently being studied by experts all around the world.

Astrophysicist Brendan O’Connor told AFP that gamma-ray bursts lasting hundreds of seconds, are considered to be created by dying giant stars that are more than 30 times the size of our Sun.

The star explodes as a supernova, collapses as a black hole, and stuff forms in a disk around the black hole, falls within, and is ejected in a jet of energy traveling at 99.99 percent the speed of light.

The flash emitted photons with a record 18 teraelectronvolts of energy — that’s 18 with 12 zeros after it — affecting long wave radio communications in the Earth’s ionosphere.

“It’s really breaking records, both in terms of the number of photons and the energy of the photons that are reaching us,” said O’Connor, who used infrared detectors on the Gemini South telescope in Chile to make new observations.

“Something this bright, this nearby, is really a once-in-a-century event,” according to him.

“Gamma-ray bursts in general release the same amount of energy that our Sun produces over its entire lifetime in the span of a few seconds — and this event is the brightest gamma ray burst.”

Ttelescopes such as NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope, Neil Gehrels Swift Observatory, and Wind spacecraft detected the gamma-ray burst, designated as GRB 221009A.

1.9 billion-year-old movie

It began in the direction of the constellation Sagitta and traveled an estimated 1.9 billion years to Earth, which is less than the current distance of its beginning place due to the universe’s expansion.

Observing the event now is like witnessing a 1.9 billion-year-old recording of those events occur in front of us, providing astronomers with a unique opportunity to gain fresh insights into topics such as black hole development.

“That’s what makes this sort of science so addictive — you get this adrenaline rush when these things happen,” said O’Connor, who is connected with the University of Maryland and George Washington University.

He said that, while lucky amateur astronomers may have seen the initial explosion, it has now faded from view.

Over the next several weeks, he and others will continue to look for supernova traces at optical and infrared wavelengths to ensure that their theory about the flash’s origins is true and that the event follows established physics.

Unfortunately, while amateur astronomers may have seen the initial explosion, it has already vanished.

Supernova explosions are also expected to produce heavy metals like as gold, platinum, and uranium, and scientists will be on the lookout for their traces.

Astrophysicists have previously stated that the sheer intensity of gamma-ray bursts might result in extinction-level catastrophes on Earth.

However, O’Connor pointed out that because the jets of energy are so tightly focused and unlikely to occur in our galaxy, we need not be too concerned about this possibility.

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