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Space Telescope Gets Swift Fix On Galaxy Blowing Up

In a nameless galaxy in the direction of Aries, Gamma Ray Burst 060218 made for a really bad day some 440 million years ago.
by Staff Writers
Greenbelt, Md. (SPX) Feb 25, 2006
Satellites and ground-based telescopes around the globe are now studying in all wavelengths the unusual cosmic explosion discovered by NASA's Swift spacecraft a week ago. The event - which scientists think is a supernova just beginning - is expected to reach peak brightness in a few days, and could even become visible to amateur-sized telescopes in the northern hemisphere.

Swift, which was designed to react quickly to study gamma-ray bursts, detected the event on Feb. 18, an explosion of gamma rays that exhibited characteristics never before observed. For examples, it occurred about 25 times closer and lasted about 100 times longer than more typical GRBs.

The event, called GRB 060218 after the date it was discovered, originated in a galaxy about 440 million light-years distant in the direction of the constellation Aries. That makes it the second-closest burst ever detected. Its shower of gamma rays lasted for nearly 2,000 seconds, or more than 33 minutes, while most bursts last from a few milliseconds to tens of seconds. The explosion also was surprisingly dim, suggesting that astronomers might be viewing it from a less than optimum angle.

"There are still many unknowns," said John Nousek, Swift mission director at Penn State University, in University Park, Pa. "This could be a new kind of burst, or we might be seeing a gamma-ray burst from an entirely different angle. This off-angle glance - a profile view, perhaps - has given us an entirely new approach to studying star explosions. Had this been farther away, we would have missed it."

Derek Fox, who is leading Penn State's monitoring of GRB 060218 on the university's Hobby-Eberly telescope, called it "the burst we've been waiting eight years for," referring to the closest-ever GRB, which was detected in 1998. "The special capabilities of Swift, which was not operating in 1998, combined with the intense campaign of ground-based telescopes, should help unravel this mystery."

Astronomers at Italy's National Institute for Astrophysics, INAF, and at England's universities of Leicester and Hertfordshire, first raised the supernova possibility. Using the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope in Chile, the scientists found the event is growing brighter in optical light. This brightening, along with other telltale spectral characteristics of its light, strongly suggests a supernova is unfolding.

"We expected to see the typical featureless spectrum of a gamma-ray burst afterglow," said Nicola Masetti of INAF's Institute for Space Astrophysics and Cosmic Physics in Bologna. "Instead, we found a mixture between this and the more complex spectrum of a supernova, similar to those generally observed weeks after the gamma-ray burst. A supernova must be in the works."

Masetti said this could be a Type Ic supernova, characterized by its massive size and the abundance of certain chemical elements. It implies a scenario in which a very massive star has exploded as it collapses into a black hole. The debris from the explosion is so dense it actually traps optical light inside. As the dust settles, more and more light escapes.

"This is a very odd GRB, but it also seems to be a very unusual supernova," said Nial Tanvir of Hertfordshire. "Astronomers have observed many thousands of supernovae over the years, and never seen the strange gamma-ray display we've witnessed here."

If the INAF team is correct, scientists will be able to study a supernova from start to finish across many electromagnetic wavelengths, from radio through X-ray. Radio telescopes have been observing the burst from the day it was detected.

"The bright X-ray source seen when Swift slewed to the burst varied rather slowly for about 40 minutes, quite different (from) the very rapid decline of more normal GRBs," said Julian Osborne, lead investigator for Swift at Leicester. "It did later decline much more rapidly, like a normal GRB, so the challenge will be to find a physical description of the explosion expanding into the host galaxy gas (that) matches this new pattern"

Because the burst was so long, Swift was able to observe the bulk of the explosion with all three of its instruments: the Burst Alert Telescope, which detected the event, and the X-ray and Ultraviolet/Optical telescopes, which are providing high-resolution imagery and spectra.

Other teams have trained the Hubble Space Telescope, the Chandra X-ray Observatory and the XMM-Newton Observatory in orbit, and the Liverpool Telescope in the Canary Islands and the U.K. Infrared Telescope in Hawaii, on the event.

Amateur astronomers in dark skies might be able to see the explosion with a minimum 16-inch telescope as it hits 16th magnitude brightness for a few hours after sunset. Its sky coordinates are right ascension 03:21:39.71 and declination +16:52:02.6.

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Swift Might Have Detected A Supernova Just Beginning
Greenbelt, Md. (SPX) Feb 23, 2006
NASA's Swift satellite has detected a strange cataclysmic event in another galaxy that scientists think could be a supernova just getting started.

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