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Record-Breaking Gamma-Ray Burst Leaves Astrophysicists in Awe

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On Oct. 9, an unbelievably powerful influx of X-rays and gamma rays infiltrated our solar system. It was likely the result of a massive explosion that happened 2.4 billion light-years away from Earth — and it’s left the science community stunned.

In the wake of the explosion, astrophysicists worldwide turned their telescopes toward the spectacular show, watching it unfold from a variety of cosmic vantage points. And as they vigilantly studied the event’s glimmering afterglow over the following week, they grew shocked by how utterly bright this gamma-ray burst seems to have been.

Eventually, the spectacle’s sheer intensity earned it a fitting (very millennial) name to accompany its robotic title of GRB221009A: B.O.A.T. — the “brightest of all time.”

“This GRB is an extraordinarily rare event,” Jillian Rastinejad, an astronomer at Northwestern University, said in a statement. “It was so bright that it triggered the Swift gamma-ray telescopes twice and fully saturated the detectors — something I haven’t seen in my time observing GRBs.”

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So, what could be the root of this record-breaking eruption? Well, scientists reasoned, perhaps something just as mind-bendingly extreme.

As of now, the leading hypothesis is this GRB was generated by the death of an ancient star as it transformed into a monstrous black hole.

In the center of the image, among a vast array of stars against the black background of space, lies a highlighted speck. This is where the burst came from.
Highlighted is a speck of light signifying where GRB221009A came from.

 


International Gemini Observatory/NOIRLab/NSF/AURA/B. O’Connor/J. Rastinejad/W. Fong/T.A. Rector/J. Miller/M. Zamani/D. de Martin

The idea here is that a huge supernova in the distant universe might have spurred the birth of a black hole, and as black holes are known to spew supreme particle-jets traveling at nearly the speed of light, maybe this one’s jet spit its contents toward Earth.

Perhaps Oct. 9 was the day we received evidence of the budding abyss.

An illustration depicting the GRB. A bright purple, neon jet shoots out from a blue, dusty rose and neon purple supernova.An illustration depicting the GRB. A bright purple, neon jet shoots out from a blue, dusty rose and neon purple supernova.
An artist’s illustration of what the 2.4 billion-light-year-away jet may look like if we could stand right in front of it.

 


NASA/Swift/Cruz deWilde

A ‘once-in-a-century’ opportunity

“We think this is a once-in-a-century opportunity to address some of the most fundamental questions regarding these explosions, from the formation of black holes to tests of dark matter models,” Brendan O’Connor, an astrophysicist at the University of Maryland who helped initially observe the GRB, said in a statement.

Plus, if the burst really is connected to the genesis of an abyss like scientists imagine, it could provide us with valuable insight about how matter behaves while traveling near the speed of light, how stars collapse into unimaginably dense voids, and in a broader sense, what the conditions might be like in a galaxy other than our own — the distant realm where B.O.A.T. was born.

Bright orange, sort of grainy, rings are seen around a bright yellow dot in the center of the image.Bright orange, sort of grainy, rings are seen around a bright yellow dot in the center of the image.
Swift’s X-Ray Telescope captured the afterglow of GRB 221009A about an hour after it was first detected. The bright rings form as a result of X-rays scattered from otherwise unobservable dust layers within our galaxy that lie in the direction of the burst.

 


NASA/Swift/A. Beardmore (University of Leicester)

However, it’s worth mentioning that everyone involved with researching this GRB is being super careful before making a final declaration of cause. Teams are still observing the event’s “afterglow,” in order to pinpoint whether the dead star; black hole theory stands strong.

“Given that most other long GRBs result from a massive star collapsing, we have every reason to believe that we will find direct evidence of a supernova,” Rastinejad said. “But that will take more work and time to confirm, and the universe could always surprise us.”

GRBs can also be associated with other cosmic marvels. As an example, shorter ones, which last mere fractions of a second, tend to stem from neutron star collisions — the crash of stellar bodies so dense a tablespoon of one is equal to something like the weight of Mount Everest.

On the bright side, though, because this GRB is so bright and in its infancy, scientists expect to be able to monitor it for several months. After one month, Rastinejad expects evidence of the event to disappear behind the sun, but once it comes back out early next year, says “we will be excited to see the GRB as a messy ‘toddler.’ Then, we will be ready and waiting to capture it on camera.”

All eyes are on B.O.A.T.

“The record-breaking nature of this GRB has reinvigorated the larger observational community in a big way,” Rasinejad said. “Everyone — even those who don’t typically study GRBs — has tried to point their detectors at it. It is a beautiful and surreal thing to be a part of and to watch how this story unfolds.”

On one hand, NASA instruments on the International Space Station like the NICER X-Ray Telescope and a Japanese detector dubbed the Orbiting High-energy Monitor Alert Network are involved. Then you have two independent teams, one led by Rastinejad and the other by O’Connor, utilizing the ground-based Gemini South telescope in Chile. And that just scratches the surface of who’s staring at the electrifying burst.

With all eyes on B.O.A.T, even if it turns out to be true that this ultra-bright GRB is the product of a star’s collapse, there’d remain far more to learn from it. We’d have the “how,” but some researchers are especially interested in understanding why the collapse would have spurred an event with this level of energy.

Although explosive GRB eruptions are captured a couple times per week, Wen-fai Fong, an astrophysicist at Northwestern University, emphasizes that “as long as we have been able to detect GRBs, there is no question that this GRB is the brightest that we have ever witnessed by a factor of 10 or more.”

It’s also curious that such high-energy rays could survive a 2.4 billion year-long journey to our planet in the first place. As the National Science Foundation’s NOIRLab puts it, scientists are wondering how particles emitted by the burst could “defy our standard understanding of physics.”

To get to the bottom of all this, it’s promising that scientists believe this burst is much closer to Earth than your average GRB. This means we can glean lots of details from it that otherwise might be too faint to see.

And even though such proximity may also partially explain why it appears so luminescent to us, “it’s also among the most energetic and luminous bursts ever seen regardless of distance, making it doubly exciting,” Roberta Pillera, the astrophysicist at the Polytechnic University of Bari, Italy, who led initial communications about the burst, said in a statement.

As NASA simply summarized, “another GRB this bright may not appear for decades.”

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New branch on tree of life includes ‘lions of the microbial world’

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There’s a new branch on the tree of life and it’s made up of predators that nibble their prey to death.

These microbial predators fall into two groups, one of which researchers have dubbed “nibblerids” because they, well, nibble chunks off their prey using tooth-like structures. The other group, nebulids, eat their prey whole. And both comprise a new ancient branch on the tree of life called “Provora,” according to a paper published today in Nature.

Microbial lions

Like lions, cheetahs, and more familiar predators, these microbes are numerically rare but important to the ecosystem, says senior author Dr. Patrick Keeling, professor in the UBC department of botany. “Imagine if you were an alien and sampled the Serengeti: you would get a lot of plants and maybe a gazelle, but no lions. But lions do matter, even if they are rare. These are lions of the microbial world.”

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Using water samples from marine habitats around the world, including the coral reefs of Curaçao, sediment from the Black and Red seas, and water from the northeast Pacific and Arctic oceans, the researchers discovered new microbes. “I noticed that in some water samples there were tiny organisms with two flagella, or tails, that convulsively spun in place or swam very quickly. Thus began my hunt for these microbes,” said first author Dr. Denis Tikhonenkov, senior researcher at the Institute for Biology of Inland Waters of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

Dr. Tikhonenkov, a long-time collaborator of the UBC co-authors, noticed that in samples where these microbes were present, almost all others disappeared after one to two days. They were being eaten. Dr. Tikhonenkov fed the voracious predators with pre-grown peaceful protozoa, cultivating the organisms in order to study their DNA.

“In the taxonomy of living organisms, we often use the gene ’18S rRNA’ to describe genetic difference. For example, humans differ from guinea pigs in this gene by only six nucleotides. We were surprised to find that these predatory microbes differ by 170 to 180 nucleotides in the 18S rRNA gene from every other living thing on Earth. It became clear that we had discovered something completely new and amazing,” Dr. Tikhonenkov said.

New branch of life

On the tree of life, the animal kingdom would be a twig growing from one of the boughs called “domains,” the highest category of life. But sitting under domains, and above kingdoms, are branches of creatures that biologists have taken to calling “supergroups.” About five to seven have been found, with the most recent in 2018 — until now.

Understanding more about these potentially undiscovered branches of life helps us understand the foundations of the living world and just how evolution works.

“Ignoring microbial ecosystems, like we often do, is like having a house that needs repair and just redecorating the kitchen, but ignoring the roof or the foundations,” said Dr. Keeling. “This is an ancient branch of the tree of life that is roughly as diverse as the animal and fungi kingdoms combined, and no one knew it was there.”

The researchers plan to sequence whole genomes of the organisms, as well as build 3D reconstructions of the cells, in order to learn about their molecular organization, structure and eating habits.

International culture

Culturing the microbial predators was no mean feat, since they require a mini-ecosystem with their food and their food’s food just to survive in the lab. A difficult process in itself, the cultures were initially grown in Canada and Russia, and both COVID and Russia’s war with Ukraine prevented Russian scientists from visiting the lab in Canada in recent years, slowing down the collaboration.

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How A Hellish Planet Made Of Diamonds Covered By A Lava Ocean Got Where It Is Today

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In recent decades it’s become clear that the universe is teeming with planets and astronomers have begun to catalog them by the hundreds. Most of the worlds we’ve discovered so far are remarkably inhospitable and the closer we look at some, the more hellacious they seem to appear.

Case in point is 55 Cancri e, also known as 55 Cnc or by its nickname, Janssen. This world orbits so close to its star, known as Copernicus or 55 Cnc, that a year on its surface passes in only 18 hours and temperatures can soar over 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

Enduring such extreme conditions for so long has led scientists to suggest that the scalding world could have an interior full of diamonds, covered by a surface ocean of molten lava.

Makes Mauna Loa seem almost minor league on the cosmic scale of volcanism.

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There’s a reason that we keep spotting so many relatively hot planets next to their stars. Call it an inherent bias of our existing tech: it’s just easier to see planets orbiting close in to their stars.

In fact, most exoplanets discovered and cataloged so far have a very good chance of being so-called “hot Jupiters” — giant planets orbiting close-in. Being massive and next to your local source of light makes you especially easy to spot.

So 55 Cancri e is actually an important exoplanet as one of the first small, rocky planets found orbiting extremely close to its star.

Now researchers have made use of a new tool called EXPRES (for EXtreme PREcision Spectrometer) at the Lowell Discovery Telescope in Arizona to make ultra-precise measurements that helped them determine the orbit of this hellish world in more detail.

They found that the planet orbits Copernicus right along the equator of the star and that it likely originally orbited further out and was slowly pulled into its current alignment by the gravitational pull of the star and other objects in the unusual star system.

The system is located only 40 light years from Earth and consists of main-sequence star Copernicus paired with a red dwarf star. The binary duo also count at least five exoplanets that all have very different orbits among their cosmic family.

The new research, led by Lily Zhao at Flatiron Institute’s Center for Computational Astrophysics and published in Nature Astronomy, posits that the interactions between these oddball family members shifted Janssen to its current, insufferable orbit.

Although it was pushed, pulled and prodded into its current position, Zhao says that even in its original orbit, the planet “was likely so hot that nothing we’re aware of would be able to survive on the surface.”

What a waste of so much diamond.

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Rare Mars eclipse by the full moon wows stargazers with occultation

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On Wednesday (Dec. 7), skywatchers around the world were treated to a celestial show as the full moon eclipsed Mars in the night sky.

The rare event, known as a lunar occultation, refers to one celestial body — in this case, Mars — appearing to disappear or hide behind another — in this case, the moon. This occultation was particularly noteworthy because Mars was at opposition, meaning Earth was directly between it and the sun, making the Red Planet appear particularly bright in the night sky.

Last night’s occultation of Mars by the full moon produced some gorgeous images from observers around the world. The Griffith Observatory in California had a great view of the moon and Mars joining up on Dec. 7 and caught a time-lapse of the Red Planet disappearing behind Earth’s celestial companion as seen in the video above.

In addition, skywatchers around the world have been posting gorgeous images of the lunar occultation of Mars on social media, offering a look at one of the year’s most-watched celestial events.

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Astrophotographer Andrew McCarthy caught Mars and the full moon (opens in new tab) in a beautiful close-up:

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Spaceflight photographer John Kraus caught a stunning shot of Mars (opens in new tab) as it appeared behind the moon following occultation:

Amateur astrophotographer Tom Williams produced a gorgeous image of the moon and Mars by combining multiple photographs, and offered an explanation of how he made the image (opens in new tab) on Twitter.

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Amateur astronomer and photographer Tom Glenn produced a breathtaking image of Mars (opens in new tab) rising above the moon by stacking 15 different photograph frames.

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Astronomer and science communicator Phil Plait caught Mars creeping behind the moon (opens in new tab) just prior to occultation.

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The lunar occultation of Mars by the full Cold Moon was particularly noteworthy because the Red Planet only appears at opposition every 26 months, so the next opposition won’t occur until January 2025.

Mars was also especially close to Earth during this event, which occurred while the planet was at perigee, or its closest point to Earth in its orbit. The record for closest approach between Mars and Earth was set in 2003 at just 34.8 million miles (56 million kilometers); according to NASA, Mars and Earth won’t be this close for another 265 years, until 2287.

Editor’s Note: If you snap a great photo of either Mars at opposition or the lunar occultation and would like to share it with Space.com’s readers, send your photo(s), comments, and your name and location to spacephotos@space.com

Editor’s Note: This piece was updated at 4:30 p.m. EST (2130 GMT) on Dec. 8 to indicate that the record for Mars’ closest approach to Earth was set in 2003.

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