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Mark A. Holmes
Stellar Explosion Is Most Distant Object Visible to
SPACE.com Fri Mar 21, 11:02 AM ET
A powerful stellar explosion that has shattered the
record for the most distant object visible to the
naked eye was detected by NASA's Swift satellite on
The explosion, known as a gamma-ray burst, also ranks
as the most intrinsically bright object in the
universe ever observed by humans.
"It's amazing we've been waiting for a flash this
bright from a gamma-ray burst ever since Swift began
observing the sky three years ago, and now we've got
one that is so bright that it was visible to the naked
eye even though its source is half-way across the
universe," said David Burrows of Penn State
University, who directs the continuing operation of
Swift's X-ray telescope and the analysis of the data
Gamma-ray bursts are the most luminous explosions in
the universe since the Big Bang and occur when massive
stars run out of nuclear fuel. The stars' cores
collapse to form black holes or neutron stars and
release an intense burst of high-energy gamma-rays and
jets of energetic particles.
The jets rip through space at nearly the speed of
light, heating the surrounding interstellar gas like
turbocharged cosmic blowtorches, often generating a
"These optical flashes from gamma-ray bursts are the
most extreme such phenomena that we know of," said
Swift science team member Derek Fox, also of Penn
State. "If this burst had happened in our galaxy, it
would have been shining brighter than the Sun for
almost a minute sunglasses would definitely be
Penn State astronomer and Swift team member Peter
Meszaros said an unusual combination of circumstances
may have made the burst's afterglow so exceptionally
bright in the visible wavelengths of light.
"When the jet that formed during the explosion of the
star slammed into the surrounding gas clouds, shock
waves were generated that heated the jet," he
explained. "The exceptional brightness of this burst
requires the jet to have just the right combination of
magnetic fields and velocity, which occurs very
Astronomers don't know for sure what made the burst,
dubbed GRB 080319B, so bright, but further analysis of
the event is under way. The burst could possibly have
been more energetic than others, or the burst's energy
may have been concentrated in a jet aimed directly at
The afterglow of GRB 080319B was 2.5 million times
more luminous than the most luminous supernova ever
recorded, making it the most intrinsically bright
object ever recorded.
Astronomers have placed the star in the constellation
Bo�tes. They have estimated it to be 7.5
billion light years away from Earth, meaning the
explosion took place when the universe was less than
half its current age and before Earth formed.
The most distant previous object that could be seen by
the naked eye is the galaxy M33, a relatively short
2.9 million light-years from Earth.
The burst was detected by Swift at 2:12 EDT on March
19 and was one of five gamma-ray bursts detected that
day, the same day that famed science fiction writer
Arthur C. Clarke died.
"Coincidentally, the passing of Arthur C. Clarke seems
to have set the universe ablaze with gamma-ray
bursts," said Swift science team member Judith
Racusin, a Penn State graduate student.
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