Astronomers Just Witnessed A Massive Cosmic Explosion… 12 Billion Years After It Happened

Supergiants are massive stars with huge amounts of energy, which causes them to expand rapidly. However, all stars eventually reach a limit, after which the gravity of the core is no longer able to hold the star together.

The explosion that follows is known as a supernova (or sometimes a hypernova, if it’s big enough). As the outer portions of the star explode off, the core collapses upon itself.

Nebulas are the remnants of a supernova explosion. This is the Crab Nebula. Click to enlarge

If a star is large enough, the extreme amount of energy produced by this inward collapse forces the star’s core to release high-energy gamma particles. These gamma bursts are the most powerful event so far discovered in the universe. But just how powerful is that?

Well, in just 10 seconds, these gamma ray bursts release more energy than our Earth’s sun will during the entire 10 billion years of its expected lifespan.

On April 19th, in the Davis Mountains of West Texas, the ROTSE-IIIb telescope (owned by Southern Methodist University in Dallas) detected the rare phenomenon in a corner of the sky.

Click to enlarge

The gamma ray burst, classified as GRB 140419A by NASA’s Gamma-ray Coordinates Network, came from a supernova that happened 12.1 billion years ago, not long after the Big Bang (estimated to have occurred 13.8 billion years ago).

Gamma ray burst have only recently been observed. Not only are they at extremely high frequencies, but they also have the shortest wavelengths on the electromagnetic spectrum, making them more difficult to detect. It wasn’t until the 90s that we created a telescope with the technology to detect gamma radiation.

The discovery was published in Science Daily earlier this month. You can read the full story here.

NOTE: The feature image is an artist rendering of a gamma burst. It is, however, based on detailed scientific study of the event.


3 thoughts on “Astronomers Just Witnessed A Massive Cosmic Explosion… 12 Billion Years After It Happened”

  1. An interesting article. Athough gamma ray burst are infrequent they will occur in own galaxy from time to time.
    What also fascinates me that one of the great extinction events the Ordovician extinction, which happened around 450 Million years ago, may have been caused by a gamma ray burst from a hypernova within our own galaxy. A short burst would have stripped the Earth’s atmosphere of half of its ozone almost immediately, exposing surface-dwelling organisms, including those responsible for planetary photosynthesis, to high levels of ultraviolet radiation.

    The Science Geek

    1. i’ve heard of this theory and always thought it sounded pretty plausible. have we found anything in the cosmos (like residuals from the burst for example) to support the hypothesis though?

      thanks for your comment! awesome input

      1. I think that it will be difficult if not impossible to prove beyond doubt that a gamma ray burst caused the Ordovician extinction. However this extinction devastated creatures which lived on land and in shallow water and left deep sea creatures relatively intact which fits the pattern of what would be expected from a gamma ray burst.
        ( The following link gives a bit more background )
        Also, the laws of probability mean that a significant gamma ray bust will hit the Earth every few million years.

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