A new way to pinpoint the locations of distant exploding stars may open a cache of celestial fireworks for deeper study, broadening scientists’ understanding of the most violent eruptions in the universe.
In research published last month, scientists said that for the first time they have zeroed in on the visible-light remains of a dying star based solely on a large swath of sky provided by a NASA satellite, after it detected a telltale burst of invisible gamma rays.
The study, appearing in the Oct. 20 edition of Astrophysical Journal Letters, was led by the California Institute of Technology and included GW physics professor Alessandra Corsi among an international team of researchers.
Gamma-ray bursts are generated in rare occasions during the fiery collapse of massive, spinning stars, likely marking the formation of a black hole. Pinpointing the location of a burst using only visible light, the researchers said, is akin to finding a needle in a cosmic haystack.
(Video by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center)
Spotting gamma-ray bursts involves using data from a space observatory, in this case NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope. While Fermi’s Gamma-ray Burst Monitor detects more than 200 of these each year, homing in on the location usually requires additional telescopes that search for light in various wavelengths, such as X-rays, radio waves and visible light, after the gamma rays are detected.
But access to high-powered telescopes for follow-up is costly and difficult to get, Dr. Corsi, said, often making such wide-ranging hunts impractical. A big stretch of sky can produce a glut of candidate light sources to check out—in the case of the new study, around 24,000.