PureInsight | January 2, 2001
Sometimes in science, one weird thing leads to another. After more than 30 years of trying to find the source of mysterious deep-space bursts of energy known as gamma-ray bursts, researchers now suspect a newly devised culprit called a hypernova.
Hypernovae are so strange, scienists can't even agree on what they are, or if they are really behind the commotion of the extremely high-energy gamma-ray bursts.
'Gamma rays are the highest energy form of radiation,' says NASA's Jerry Fishman. 'They are higher energy than X-rays -- they are very penetrating. They'll go through several inches of steel, for example.'
Scientists have long suspected that gamma-ray bursts, called GRBs, are triggered by the spiraling merger of two very dense objects, perhaps neutron stars.
But a pair of studies released in November 2000 supports another, stranger possibility.
Many old stars die in a colossal explosion known as a supernova, spewing matter and energy rapidly outward. In some cases, researchers think remaining material collapses into a black hole, which might later generate a burst of gamma rays -- a hypernova.
Understanding hypernovae, and thus pinning down at least one source of gamma-ray bursts, would give researchers clues about the formation of our galaxy and the universe.
(Image: Hubble Space Telescope image of Eta Carinae, a possible hypernova. )