The cosmos is the stage for a variety of giant explosions. These include stellar flares, where stars suddenly release magnetic energy; and neutron star mergers, where two dense stars collide together. But one class of explosions outshines the rest: gamma ray bursts are the most energetic explosions seen in the universe.
Gamma rays are one of the most energetic forms of light, and gamma ray bursts release almost unimaginable quantities of them. First discovered during the cold war—by military satellites searching for the signs of nuclear tests in the upper atmosphere—gamma ray bursts are now thought to be caused by massive stars undergoing huge explosions when they run out of fuel. These events are rare, but so energetic they can be seen in galaxies many billions of light years away.
Recently, astronomers thought they had seen evidence for one of these explosions from the most distant galaxy every seen. But a recently published paper casts doubt on these claims, suggesting it might have been caused by a more mundane source much closer to home.
Gamma ray bursts
No gamma ray bursts have been documented in our galaxy yet, which may not be a bad thing. A gamma ray burst pointed directly at the Earth would probably lead to a mass extinction event, and the end of civilisation as we know it. Undocumented events may in fact already have caused mass extinction events in Earth’s history.
Gamma ray bursts have been seen far away, however. The paper suggesting researchers had discovered a new gamma ray burst in the most distant known galaxy was published in 2020. Using the Keck telescope on Mauna Kea, Hawaii, the researchers observed strips of the sky, and happened to see a bright flash, just a few seconds long, in one of their exposures.
By modeling the duration and brightness of the flash, they ruled out the possibility that it was a natural or human-made satellite close to home. They also ruled out a number of other astronomical explanations, and concluded that the most likely explanation was, indeed, a gamma ray burst.
What was so unique about this discovery was that the team pinpointed the direction of the event and found it was coming from the same area as a galaxy known as GN-z11, which just so happens to be the most distant and oldest galaxy we’ve yet discovered.
Was this an incredible cosmic coincidence? Or was this a sign that gamma ray bursts were more common in the very early universe, just 400 million years after the big bang? The latter conclusion would have big implications for our understanding of how stars and galaxies form in the early universe, and led to a lot of excitement among astronomers.
But unease about the conclusions of the group surfaced, with some arguing it was much more likely that the flash was from an object within our solar system, which could be a natural (such as a moon) or artificial satellite. In another paper, a different team suggested the most likely explanation was a reflection from a human-made satellite. The original authors followed up on these claims, doubling down on their gamma ray burst interpretation, but the chorus of doubters was only getting louder.
Now, the controversy has taken another turn, with a new paper recently published in Nature. The authors of this paper suggest the purported gamma-ray burst was in fact a flash caused by a human-made satellite after all. The researchers used a public space-track website to search for possible human satellite interference in the direction and at the time of the flash detection.
Around the time that the original team were studying the sky, a Russian proton rocket reached low Earth orbit and released its upper stages (dubbed Breeze-M), which then became space junk, orbiting the Earth. By looking at the orbit of the space debris and matching with the observations taken in the original study, the new team found the flash could be simply explained by the upper stage falling past the part of the sky the telescope was observing.
The proton rocket has been in operation since the 1960s, and it’s not the only time one of its Breeze-M upper stages has been in the news. In 2013 an explosion scattered huge amounts of debris into near Earth orbit, and left NASA scrambling to assess whether it would pose a danger to the International Space Station.
While this particular incident was perhaps particularly unlucky, with increasing amounts of junk in space, and the launching of large constellations of satellites by the private company SpaceX and others in the coming years, it highlights the increasing difficulties astronomers face observing from the Earth’s surface.
Better databases of satellites and space debris will help avoid these kinds of misidentifications. But the increasing light pollution from satellite constellations threatens the ability of telescopes on the ground to even see clearly enough to do world-leading science.
Energy burst from most distant known galaxy might have been a satellite orbiting Earth (2021, October 5)
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Russian crew returns from shooting the first feature film on the ISS – Yahoo Movies Canada
Shooting for the first feature-length movie in space has wrapped. Space.com reports Russian actress Yulia Pereslid, producer Klim Shipenko and cosmonaut Oleg Novitskiy have returned to Earth after the first two spent 12 days filming their movie The Challenge aboard the International Space Station. The three left the ISS in a Soyuz spacecraft at 9:14PM Eastern on October 16th and landed in Kazakhstan just a few hours later, at 12:35AM.
Pereslid and Shipenko arrived on October 5th through an agreement between the Russian space agency Roscosmos, the TV network Channel One and the production studio Yellow, Black and White. Novitskiy had been there since April 9th as part of his regular duties, although he also played a key role — the movie has Pereslid play a surgeon who makes an emergency visit to the ISS to operate on the cosmonaut.
The filming required significant sacrifices for some of the ISS crew. NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei and Russian cosmonaut Pyotr Dubrov were originally slated to return aboard the Soyuz capsule, but both have had their stays extended by six months to accommodate the film producers. Vande Hei will set a record for the longest spaceflight by a US astronaut as a result, spending exactly one year in orbit. Pereslid also broke ground as the first professional actor to visit space, beating William Shatner by roughly a week.
It will be a while before The Challenge is ready to watch, and it’s safe to say the production is aimed primarily at a Russian audience. It’s a major milestone for private uses of space, though, and hints at a future when Tom Cruise and other stars are frequently blasting off to produce shows in orbit.
Russian actor, director arrive back on earth from ISS – Euronews
A Soyuz space capsule carrying a cosmonaut and two Russian filmmakers has returned to Earth after leaving the International Space Station (ISS) earlier on Sunday.
The capsule landed on the steppes of Kazakhstan carrying Russian actor Yulia Peresild and film director Klim Shipenko, who returned to Earth after filming scenes for the world’s first movie in orbit – a project the Kremlin said would help burnish the nation’s space glory.
Peresild and Shipenko rocketed into orbit in a Russian Soyuz spacecraft on October 5 for a 12-day stint on the station to film segments of the movie titled “Challenge,” in which a surgeon played by Peresild rushes to the space station to save a crew member who needs an urgent operation in orbit.
The pair returned to Earth on Sunday with another Russian cosmonaut, Oleg Novitskiy, who also stars as the ailing cosmonaut in the movie.
VIDEO: NASA’s asteroid hunter Lucy soars into sky with diamonds – Abbotsford News
A NASA spacecraft named Lucy rocketed into the sky with diamonds Saturday morning on a 12-year quest to explore eight asteroids.
Seven of the mysterious space rocks are among swarms of asteroids sharing Jupiter’s orbit, thought to be the pristine leftovers of planetary formation.
An Atlas V rocket blasted off before dawn, sending Lucy on a roundabout journey spanning nearly 4 billion miles (6.3 billion kilometers). Researchers grew emotional describing the successful launch — lead scientist Hal Levison said it was like witnessing the birth of a child. “Go Lucy!” he urged.
Lucy is named after the 3.2 million-year-old skeletal remains of a human ancestor found in Ethiopia nearly a half-century ago. That discovery got its name from the 1967 Beatles song “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” prompting NASA to send the spacecraft soaring with band members’ lyrics and other luminaries’ words of wisdom imprinted on a plaque. The spacecraft also carried a disc made of lab-grown diamonds for one of its science instruments.
In a prerecorded video for NASA, Beatles drummer Ringo Starr paid tribute to his late colleague John Lennon, credited for writing the song that inspired all this.
“I’m so excited — Lucy is going back in the sky with diamonds. Johnny will love that,” Starr said. “Anyway, if you meet anyone up there, Lucy, give them peace and love from me.”
The paleoanthropologist behind the fossil Lucy discovery, Donald Johanson, had goose bumps watching Lucy soar — “I will never look at Jupiter the same … absolutely mind-expanding.” He said he was filled with wonder about this “intersection of our past, our present and our future.”
“That a human ancestor who lived so long ago stimulated a mission which promises to add valuable information about the formation of our solar system is incredibly exciting,” said Johanson, of Arizona State University, who traveled to Cape Canaveral for his first rocket launch.
Lucy’s $981 million mission is the first to aim for Jupiter’s so-called Trojan entourage: thousands — if not millions — of asteroids that share the gas giant’s expansive orbit around the sun. Some of the Trojan asteroids precede Jupiter in its orbit, while others trail it.
Despite their orbits, the Trojans are far from the planet and mostly scattered far from each other. So there’s essentially zero chance of Lucy getting clobbered by one as it swoops past its targets, said Levison of Southwest Research Institute, the mission’s principal scientist.
Lucy will swing past Earth next October and again in 2024 to get enough gravitational oomph to make it all the way out to Jupiter’s orbit. On the way there, the spacecraft will zip past asteroid Donaldjohanson between Mars and Jupiter. The aptly named rock will serve as a 2025 warm-up act for the science instruments.
Drawing power from two huge circular solar wings, Lucy will chase down five asteroids in the leading pack of Trojans in the late 2020s. The spacecraft will then zoom back toward Earth for another gravity assist in 2030. That will send Lucy back out to the trailing Trojan cluster, where it will zip past the final two targets in 2033 for a record-setting eight asteroids visited in a single mission.
It’s a complicated, circuitous path that had NASA’s science mission chief, Thomas Zurbuchen, shaking his head at first. “You’ve got to be kidding. This is possible?” he recalled asking.
Lucy will pass within 600 miles (965 kilometers) of each target; the biggest one is about 70 miles (113 kilometers) across.
“Are there mountains? Valleys? Pits? Mesas? Who knows? I’m sure we’re going to be surprised,” said Johns Hopkins University’s Hal Weaver, who’s in charge of Lucy’s black-and-white camera. “But we can hardly wait to see what … images will reveal about these fossils from the formation of the solar system.”
NASA plans to launch another mission next month to test whether humans might be able to alter an asteroid’s orbit — practice in case Earth ever has a killer rock headed this way.
The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.
Marcia Dunn, The Associated Press
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