Dec. 20, 2006 Scientists using NASA data are studying a newly recognized type of cosmic explosion called a hybrid gamma-ray burst. As with other gamma-ray bursts, this hybrid blast is likely signaling the birth of a new black hole.
It is unclear, however, what kind of object or objects exploded or merged to create the new black hole. The hybrid burst exhibits properties of the two known classes of gamma-ray bursts yet possesses features that remain unexplained.
NASA's Swift first discovered the burst on June 14. Since the Swift finding, more than a dozen telescopes, including the Hubble Space Telescope and large ground-based observatories, have studied the burst.
"We have lots of data on this event, have dedicated lots of observation time, and we just can't figure out what exploded," said Neil Gehrels of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., lead author on one of four reports appearing in this week's edition of the journal Nature. "All the data seem to point to a new but perhaps not so uncommon kind of cosmic explosion."
Gamma-ray bursts represent the most powerful known explosions in the universe. Yet they are random and fleeting, never appearing twice. Scientists have only recently begun to understand their nature.
Such bursts typically fall into one of two categories, long or short. The long bursts last more than two seconds and appear to be from the core collapse of massive stars forming a black hole. Most of these bursts come from the edge of the visible universe. The short bursts, which are under two seconds and often last just a few milliseconds, appear to be the merger of two neutron stars or a neutron star with a black hole, which subsequently creates a new or bigger black hole.
The hybrid burst, called GRB 060614, after the date it was detected, originated from within a galaxy 1.6 billion light years away in the southern constellation Indus. The burst lasted for 102 seconds, placing it soundly in long-burst territory. But the burst lacked the hallmark of a supernova, or star explosion, commonly seen shortly after long bursts. Also, the burst's host galaxy has a low star-formation rate with few massive stars that could produce supernovae and long gamma-ray bursts. "This was close enough to detect a supernova if it existed," said Avishay Gal-Yam of Caltech, Pasadena, Calif., lead author on another Nature report. "Even Hubble didn't see anything."
Certain properties of the burst concerning its brightness and the arrival time of photons of various energies, called the lag-luminosity relationship, suggest that burst behaved more like a short burst (from a merger) than a long burst. Yet no theoretical model of mergers can support a sustained release of gamma-ray energy for 102 seconds. "This is brand new territory; we have no theories to guide us," said Gehrels.
The burst is perhaps not unprecedented. Archived data from the Compton Gamma-Ray Observatory in the 1990s possibly reveal other hybrid "long-short" bursts, but no follow-up observations are available to confirm this. Johan Fynbo of the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen, also lead author on a Nature report, suggests that a burst from May of this year was also long, but had no associated supernova.
Scientists remain divided on whether this was a long-short burst from a merger or a long burst from a star explosion with no supernova. Most conclude, however, that some new process must be at play -- either the model of mergers creating second-long bursts needs a major overhaul, or the progenitor star from an explosion is intrinsically different from the kind that make supernovae.
"We siphoned out all the information we could from GRB 060614," said Massimo Della Valle of the Osservatorio Astrofisico di Arcetri in Firenze, Italy, another lead author on a Nature report. "All we can do now is wait for the next nearby hybrid burst."
Swift launched in November 2004. It is a NASA mission in partnership with the Italian Space Agency and the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council, England, and managed by Goddard. Penn State in State College controls science and flight operations. Los Alamos National Laboratory, N.M., provides gamma-ray imaging analysis.
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