Satellite blinded by exploding star

2010-07-15 11:07

The brightest explosion of a star ever seen temporarily blinded a

satellite set up to watch such events.

The gamma-ray burst and explosion of X-rays that followed came from

a star that died 5 billion years ago, far beyond our own Milky Way galaxy, Nasa

and British scientists said. It took this long for the radiation to reach the

Swift orbiting observatory.

The bright X-ray burst blinded Swift on June 21, and the

observatory’s software ignored it as if it were an anomaly, the astronomers


Neil Gehrels, Swift’s principal investigator at NASA’s Goddard

Space Flight Center in Maryland, said: “The intensity of these X-rays was

unexpected and unprecedented.”

Gehrels said the burst, named GRB 100621A, is the brightest X-ray

source that Swift has detected since it started looking for them in 2005.

Gehrels said: “Just when we were beginning to think that we had

seen everything that gamma-ray bursts could throw at us, this burst came along

to challenge our assumptions about how powerful their X-ray emissions can


Phil Evans of Britain’s University of Leicester, who discovered the

burst when he was going through some recorded data from Swift, said: “The burst

was so bright when it first erupted that our data analysis software shut down.

So many photons were bombarding the detector each second that it just couldn’t

count them quickly enough. It was like trying to use a rain gauge and a bucket

to measure the flow rate of a tsunami.”

When a star explodes, radiation travels at the speed of light in

all directions. Gamma rays reach Earth first, followed by X-rays.

This particular one was 140 times brighter than the brightest

continuous X-ray source in the sky – a nearby neutron star.

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