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Astronomers Glimpse ‘Teenage’ Years Of Universe In Rare Cosmic Explosion

by : Emily Brown on : 15 Jul 2020 14:26
Astronomers Glimpse 'Teenage' Years Of Universe In Rare Cosmic ExplosionInternational Gemini Observatory/K. Paterson/W. Fong/Northwestern University/Pikist

Astronomers were provided with a glimpse into our universe’s ‘teenage’ years thanks to a rare cosmic explosion that took place billions of light years away. 

The short gamma ray burst (SGRB), which has been given the catchy name ‘SGRB181123B’, occurred 10 billion light-years away from Earth and about 3.8 billion years after the Big Bang.

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While 3.8 billion years might seem a bit old to be a teenager, it’s all relative given the universe’s long history, and it seems unlikely space would have ever gone through a particularly angsty phase, anyway.

SGRBs are considered rare because afterglows are both fast and faint, and can disappear hours later. This particular burst marked the second most-distant ever detected, and the most distant to have a visible afterglow.

It was detected by NASA’s Neil Gehrels Swift Observatory in November 2018, with a study on the burst published this week in the Astrophysical Journal Letters.

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Swift Observatory spacecraft modeWikimedia Commons/NASA

Speaking to CNN about the rare occurrence, Wen-fai Fong, senior study author and assistant professor of physics and astronomy in Northwestern University’s Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, commented:

They are extremely hard to find (because they are so distant, they are also fainter which makes them even more difficult to catch) and therefore we do not know the true rates of SGRBs during this period of the universe.

SGRBs originate from the mergers of two neutron stars, and it is of great interest to understand when neutron star mergers happen in our universe, and how long they take to merge.

On average, astronomers detect fewer than 10 SGRBs a year that are close enough for them to be observed using telescopes, but the short-lived nature of their afterglows means it’s rare for them to be studied in detail.

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Afterglow of gamma ray burstInternational Gemini Observatory/K. Paterson/W. Fong/Northwestern University

Fong continued:

I love gamma-ray bursts because they evolve on human timescales. From the time you eat lunch to the time you eat dinner on the same day, the GRB afterglow has been evolving, fading in brightness on minute/hour timescales.

Once they’re detected, you really want to capture every moment that you can with them! The human element of this particular burst was unreal to me and a great example of teamwork. If you had to do it all on your own, you would never sleep.

A team of astronomers were able to measure the afterglow of the burst, and follow-up observations revealed it was extremely distant. It occurred when the universe was approximately 30% of its current age, which is estimated to be 13.8 billion years old.

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By studying the afterglow of the burst, astronomers could better understand what neutron star mergers were like in the young universe, when star formation was at its peak.

universe spacePixabay

In a statement about the study, Fong commented:

It’s long been unknown how long neutron stars — in particular those that produce SGRBs — take to merge. Finding an SGRB at this point in the universe’s history suggests that, at a time when the universe was forming lots of stars, the neutron star pair may have merged fairly rapidly.

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Kerry Paterson, lead study author and postdoctoral associate in Northwestern’s Center for Interdisciplinary Exploration and Research in Astrophysics, expressed beliefs that astronomers are ‘uncovering the tip of the iceberg’ for distant SGRBs, and as such researchers are motivated to continue their studies.

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Emily Brown

Emily Brown first began delivering important news stories aged just 13, when she launched her career with a paper round. She graduated with a BA Hons in English Language in the Media from Lancaster University, and went on to become a freelance writer and blogger. Emily contributed to The Sunday Times Travel Magazine and Student Problems before becoming a journalist at UNILAD, where she works on breaking news as well as longer form features.

Topics: Science, Astronomy, NASA, Now, Space, universe

Credits

CNN and 2 others
  1. CNN

    Astronomers witness 'teenage' years of our universe in explosion

  2. NORTHWESTERN NOW

    Short gamma ray burst leaves most-distant optical afterglow ever detected

  3. Astrophysical Journal Letters.

    Discovery of the optical afterglow and host galaxy of short GRB181123B at z=1.754: Implications for Delay Time Distributions