Titanic GRB still going strong

By Phil Plait | April 10, 2008 4:26 pm

GRB080319b, the explosion that shook astronomers by getting bright enough to be seen with the naked eye, is still going strong. Hubble snapped this image three weeks after the explosion:

Incredibly, even after that time the GRB afterglow is still brighter than its host galaxy! This was truly an incredible event. I imagine any potential aliens in that galaxy — at least between us and the burst — are just so much vapor now. Of course, you can think of this event as having happened 7.5 billion years ago, so it’s unlikely that there are any alien civilizations around to be destroyed (as I mentioned in an earlier post, heavy metals were rarer back then, so planets would probably have been deficient in elements like iron, calcium, zinc, and so on). Maybe whole planets-full of microbes were zapped, though.

GRBs emit their light in beams like a flashlight, which is why they are so bright even from so maddeningly far away. But this one was so bright that astronomers were at first a little baffled. Was this really an astonishingly luminous event, or did the beam from the GRB happen to be perfectly aimed at us? Did it hit a bulls-eye?

In fact, it’s thought that this truly was an incredibly luminous event intrinsically, and that was due to the beam being unusually tightly focused. It also was aimed right at us, making it look even brighter.

What’s fun to think about is how many other GRBs have been like this one? Probably not many, actually, so it was good for us that we happened to have the Swift satellite operating when the GRB went off. That allowed us to observe the explosion in near real-time with bigger and more sensitive telescopes, and in turn learn more about these incredible explosions on the dim edge of the Universe.

And I’ll add that this couldn’t have happened at a better time for me: I was able to edit the proofs of my book to include GRB 080319b! I had talked about an earlier burst originally, but substituted this one in for it. I’m glad the timing worked out so well.


Comments (19)

  1. Superstring

    I wonder what Halton Arp would have to say about this….


  2. The BA says: “I had talked about an earlier burst originally, but substituted this one in for it. I’m glad the timing worked out so well.”

    Glad the universe is in sync with your book. All I got to squeeze in at the last second was the fact that Fox is remaking “Day the Earth Stood Still” :-(

    – Jack

  3. Mayhap this was the “Core Explosion” from Larry Niven’s Known Space Universe. 😀

  4. Ginger Yellow

    So what are we going to learn from this? What are the many research projects in the GRB field?

  5. Shaun

    Judging from the Wikipedia article, these things are friggin scary. Still, if one hit us head on with enough juice to trigger extinction events, I wonder if I could get to that hemisphere fast enough to watch the biggest light show in the universe.

    /badastronomy.com is one of the Wikipedia references on the subject of GRBS. 😀

  6. The first paper you link to actually states that the energy of that GRB was not extraordinary at all and that it may even have been underluminous: It all depends on the opening angle of the jet which is unexpectedly hard to pin down in this case (the paper discusses several scenarios fitting the data).

    The 2nd paper linked to actually comes from supporters of a fringe model of GRBs; it’s supporters are quick to make strong statements …

  7. RayCeeYa

    Sweet now we just need to see a few dozen more to find out how common these superluminous GRBs are.

    Then we can worry, or not depending on what the data says.

  8. slang

    “What’s fun to think about is how many other GRBs have been like this one? Probably not many, actually, so it was good for us that we happened to have the Swift satellite operating when the GRB went off.”

    That would be a huge coincidence, depending on what you mean with “not many”, of course. If we, in our short period of telescope usage, see a transient event in the universe, it is safe to assume that it’s very unlikely to be something unique or rare (in astronomical sense).

    As is said about gravitational lensing, http://tinyurl.com/48r4ba : “[…] one should remember that the Universe is large enough that unlikely things happen really quite often.”

  9. Adria

    3 weeks after the event … and 2 weeks and 2 days after the first paper on the event was submitted. I’m thinking this field might be a bit too competitive for me.

  10. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    Maybe whole planets-full of microbes were zapped, though.

    Perhaps, but that would likely be harder too. Speculations of early non-organic or organic catalysts consisting of iron-sulfur surfaces still found in simple proteins or about the possible need for other metals in more complex monocellular organisms points to carbon only compounds as an added constraint for evolution.

    A constraint that evolution would in all likelihood eventually circumvent, of course. [And I’m agnostic about the quality of the specific study I linked to.]

  11. NoAstronomer

    “What’s fun to think about is how many other GRBs have been like this one?”

    What I like to think about is how many other GRBs occur that we never see – because they’re not aimed at us. We seem to see a lot of them and yet we probably observe 1/1000th, or less, of all the GRBs. Which would seem to indicate that these things are popping all over the place.

  12. YinYang0564

    Now, go away or I will taunt you a second time!

  13. Mr. LAME

    another dimension signal
    or our future tehcnology say hello to us ???
    nothing is imposible

  14. Edward

    Will the gamma rays eventually reach us in 7.5 billion years?
    Or will they diminish to a point that is inconsequential?

  15. Edward, the gamma rays are reaching us now. They’re not intense enough to do any damage.

  16. So, anyone know how “narrow” the GRB would be? Even if it were confined to a beam of 0.001 degrees, that would still be over 130,000 light years across after traveling 7.5 billion light years.

  17. spicoli

    I wonder if a GRB event could cook my frozen pizza?

  18. I just had a thought about this Gamma Ray Burst and Extraterrestrial Life.

    If we want to call attention to ourselves, we should send a signal out (you know, like the Prime Numbers, etc), in the direction this burst is headed – right now. We know that any race intelligent enough to have their own version of SWIFT has the capability to detect our signal.

    If indeed there is another race that picks up on this we know they’ll be looking in our direction.

    Just a thought.

  19. tony

    Gergg Easterbrook of ESPN has an interesting view regarding these GRBs. He sees potential evidence of doomsday-type weapons used by ancient and far-off civilizations in their death throes locked in a deadly war agaisnt a powerful and destructive enemy. Perhaps his view is more science fiction than science, but nevertheless amusing.


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