Cosmic Explosion among the Brightest in Recorded History

The National Aeronautics and S

PureInsight | February 28, 2005

Scientists have detected a flash of light from across the Galaxy so powerful that it bounced off the Moon and lit up the Earth's upper atmosphere. The flash was brighter than anything ever detected from beyond our Solar System and lasted over a tenth of a second. NASA and European satellites and many radio telescopes detected the flash and its aftermath on December 27, 2004.

Artist conceptions of the December 27, 2004 gamma ray flare expanding from SGR 1806-20 and impacting Earth's atmosphere. Credit: NASA

The scientists said the light came from a "giant flare" on the surface of an exotic neutron star, called a magnetar. The apparent magnitude was brighter than a full moon and all historical star explosions. The light was brightest in the gamma-ray energy range, far more energetic than visible light or X-rays and invisible to our eyes.

Such a close and powerful eruption raises the question of whether an even larger influx of gamma rays, disturbing the atmosphere, was responsible for one of the mass extinctions known to have occurred on Earth hundreds of millions of years ago. If the explosion had been within just 10 light-years, Earth could have suffered a mass extinction, it is said. Also, if giant flares can be this powerful, then some gamma-ray bursts (thought to be very distant black-hole-forming star explosions) could actually be from neutron star eruptions in nearby galaxies.

An artist conception of the SGR 1806-20 magnetar including magnetic field lines. After the initial flash, smaller pulsations in the data suggest hot spots on the rotating magnetar's surface. The data also shows no change in the magentar's rotation after the initial flash.

NASA's newly launched Swift satellite and the NSF-funded Very Large Array (VLA) were two of many observatories that observed the event, arising from neutron star SGR 1806-20, about 50,000 light years from Earth in the constellation Sagittarius.

"This might be a once-in-a-lifetime event for astronomers, as well as for the neutron star," said Dr. David Palmer of Los Alamos National Laboratory, lead author on a paper describing the Swift observation. "We know of only two other giant flares in the past 35 years, and this December event was one hundred times more powerful."

Dr. Bryan Gaensler of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass., is lead author on a report describing the VLA observation, which tracked the ejected material as it flew out into interstellar space. Other key scientific teams are associated with radio telescopes in Australia, The Netherlands, United Kingdom, India and the United States, as well as with NASA's High Energy Solar Spectroscopic Imager (RHESSI).

A neutron star is the core remains of a star once several times more massive than our Sun. When such stars deplete their nuclear fuel, they explode -- an event called a supernova. The remaining core is dense, fast-spinning, highly magnetic, and only about 15 miles in diameter. Millions of neutron stars fill our Milky Way galaxy.

SGR-1806 is an ultra-magnetic neutron star, called a magnetar, located about 50,000 light years away from Earth in the constellation Sagittarius. Credit: NASA

Scientists have discovered about a dozen ultrahigh-magnetic neutron stars, called magnetars. The magnetic field around a magnetar is about 1,000 trillion gauss, strong enough to strip information from a credit card at a distance halfway to the moon. (Ordinary neutron stars measure a mere trillion gauss; the Earth's magnetic field is about 0.5 gauss.)

Four of these magnetars are also called soft gamma repeaters, or SGRs, because they flare up randomly and release gamma rays. Such episodes release about 10^30 to 10^35 watts for about a second, or up to millions of times more energy than our Sun. For a tenth of a second, the giant flare on SGR 1806-20 unleashed energy at a rate of about 10^40 watts. The total energy produced was more than the Sun emits in 150,000 years.

Swift is a first-of-its-kind multi-wavelength observatory dedicated to the study of gamma ray burst (GRB) science. Its three instruments will work together to observe GRBs and afterglows in the gamma ray, X-ray, ultraviolet, and optical wavebands. Swift is designed to solve the 35-year-old mystery of the origin of gamma-ray bursts. Scientists believe GRB are the birth cries of black holes. Credit: NASA

"The next biggest flare ever seen from any soft gamma repeater was peanuts compared to this incredible December 27 event," said Gaensler. "Had this happened within 10 light years of us, it would have severely damaged our atmosphere. Fortunately, all the magnetars we know of are much farther away than this."

A scientific debate raged in the 1980s over whether gamma-ray bursts were star explosions from beyond our Galaxy or eruptions on nearby neutron stars. By the late 1990s it became clear that gamma-ray bursts did indeed originate very far away and that SGRs were a different phenomenon. But the extraordinary giant flare on SGR 1806-20 reopens the debate, according to Dr. Chryssa Kouveliotou of NASA Marshall Space Flight Center, who took part in both the Swift and VLA analysis.

A sizeable percentage of "short" gamma-ray bursts, less than two seconds, could be SGR flares, she said. These would come from galaxies within about a 100 million light years from Earth. (Long gamma-ray bursts appear to be black-hole-forming star explosions billions of light years away.)

"An answer to the 'short' gamma-ray burst mystery could come any day now that Swift is in orbit", said Swift lead scientist Neil Gehrels. "Swift saw this event after only about a month on the job."

A high resolution, wide-field image of the area around SGR1806-20 as seen in radio wavelength. SGR1806-20 can not be seen in this image generated from earlier radio data taken when SGR1806-20 was "radio quiet." The arrow locates the position of SGR1806-20 within the image. Credit: University of Hawaii.

SGR 1806-20 is a "magnetar": a rapidly spinning neutron star that not only has an incredible density, trillions of times greater than than ordinary matter, but an incredibly strong magnetic field. Tens of thousands of years ago, a "starquake" fractured the magnetar's surface. The result was an explosive release of energy, which sent a pulse of gamma rays racing across the cosmos at the speed of light. Behind them came the explosion's fireball, expanding in a lopsided fashion at roughly one-third the speed of light. The gamma rays swept past the Earth on December 27, 2004, when they were detected by NASA's Swift satellite. That initial signal faded away within minutes. But then came a steady stream of radio waves from the fireball. Astronomers rushed to ground-based radio telescopes such as NSF's Very Large Array outside Socorro, New Mexico, where they have been studying the information-rich signal ever since. Credit: NSF


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