Happy birthday, Swift!

By Phil Plait | November 23, 2011 7:00 am

NASA’s little satellite that could, Swift, recently celebrated its seventh year in space. It blasted into orbit on November 20, 2004, starting a mission that would increase our understanding of the most violent events in the universe, and shatter cosmic distance records.

I wrote about Swift six years ago, on the first anniversary of its launch, and the funny thing is not a whole lot has changed except for the numbers. It’s still going strong after 2500+ days in orbit, and instead of dozens of gamma-ray bursts seen after one year, now it’s seen well over 600. Gamma-ray bursts are the mind-numbingly violent explosions of stars that signal the births of black holes, and each event releases as much energy in a few seconds as the Sun will over its entire lifetime. Happily, the Earth is nowhere near any potential GRB candidates (the nearest is about 7500 light years away, far enough that any damage it could do to us would be relatively mild), but if one were, say, 100 light years away, it would cook us like a whelk in a supernova.

Observing GRBs is Swift’s primary mission, and it’s performed outstandingly. It’s spotted what might be the most distant cosmic explosions ever seen, at 13.14 billion light years away from Earth. It saw the brightest GRB ever detected. But it’s also surveyed the sky, looking at high-energy light from sources near and far. It’s mapped our nearby galactic neighbors the Andromeda (shown above) and Triangulum galaxies in ultraviolet. It’s even observed near-Earth asteroids.

You can see the latest GRBs seen by Swift online, and there’s also a fun little iPhone/iPad app you can download that shows you Swift info, including the latest GRB detected and where Swift is in its orbit over the Earth.

I worked on Education and Public Outreach for Swift for many years, and it’s really nice to see it still pumping out fascinating and important science. Happy birthday to Swift and congratulations to the Swift team!

Image credits: NASA; Image credit: NASA/Swift/Stefan Immler (GSFC) and Erin Grand (UMCP)


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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, NASA
MORE ABOUT: GRB, Swift

Comments (11)

Links to this Post

  1. [COSMIC BODIES] What is WR-104? « Before Us The Stars | November 23, 2011
  1. dcsohl

    1) What is this 7500-ly distant GRB candidate and how have we identified it as such? EDIT: I did a little research and answered my own question. It is the star Eta Carinae, which is not visible at all in most of North America (excepting Hawaii and the extreme southern tier of the continental US).

    2) “a whelk in a supernova”

    Man, I really miss Douglas Adams…

  2. Other Paul

    How would one modify the Drake Equation to perform the melancholy calculation for the number of civilisations wiped out by a single GRB?

    I appreciate that’s a bit of a downer for a birthday celebration – but ‘Death from the Skies’ is visible to my right as I type!

  3. Arthur Dent

    A whelk? But, why a whelk?

  4. RobT

    iPhone/iPad apps? That’s pretty neat keeping up to date with SWIFT like that but would an iPhone user even understand what they are seeing? ;-) Should be supporting Android.

  5. Gary Ansorge

    About GRB,,,”Just don’t point that thing my way. It’s loaded,,,”

    So, how many GRBs have been found in this galaxy? What are the precursor states for a star to form a GRB? ,,,and I wonder how many times we’ve slipped past a GRB w/o getting fried. Boy, are we Lucky, or what?

    Just think of all the potential sentient species that could have survived long enough to make it to the stars, if not for those pesky GRBs. Can you imagine a species at the tech level of our ancestors(ok, MY ancestors, a mere 100 years ago), getting sprayed by a GRB? They would not even know why they and their entire eco-system were dying.

    ,,,they’d probably blame it on their gods,,,

    Gary 7

  6. dcsohl

    There’s speculation that the Ordovician-Silurian extinction event was caused by a gamma ray burst about 6000 light-years away. This event saw the extinction of nearly half of all existing animal genera. A ten second burst, the scientists claim, would strip our atmosphere of half of its ozone and expose the surface to intense ultra-violet radiation for many years afterwards.

    It’s important to note that this is merely the result of a “what-if” mental experiment. There is no evidence whatsoever that this actually occurred; merely that the results of a GRB 6000 ly distant would correspond roughly to what happened at the end of the Ordovician 445 million years ago.

    http://www.nasa.gov/vision/universe/starsgalaxies/gammaray_extinction.html

  7. Georg

    BTW, whats Swifts first name?
    Jonathan?

  8. Thomas Siefert

    but if one were, say, 100 light years away, it would cook us like a whelk in a supernova.

    Swiftly and with style.

  9. Happy birthday Swift! :-)

    100 light years away, it would cook us like a whelk in a supernova.

    Don’t you mean over-cook there? ;-)

    @7. Georg : Good one. LOL. :-)

    @ 3. Arthur Dent : “A whelk? But, why a whelk?”

    Why not a whelk?

    Seriously, I think maybe a quote or reference to something but unsure what exactly.

    @1. dcsohl : November 23rd, 2011 at 7:57 am

    What is this 7500-ly distant GRB candidate and how have we identified it as such? EDIT: I did a little research and answered my own question. It is the star Eta Carinae, which is not visible at all in most of North America (excepting Hawaii and the extreme southern tier of the continental US).

    The BA used Eta Carinae as his Gamma Ray Burster example in ‘Death from the Skies’ but the one possible GRB precursor that I think he is most concerned about, the one we may have cause for slight concern over, would be WR-104.

    Click on my name for link or see :

    ‘WR 104: A nearby gamma-ray burst? posted March 3rd, 2008 11:50 AM on this blog.

    (Which by-th’-by is NOT found under either Gamma Ray Burst or WR 104 in the search box here.)

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