I know, it sounds like the setting for a cheesy space B-movie, but astronomers are baffled with this huge explosion that NASA qualifies as “unprecedented”. They call it GRB 110328A, for Gamma Ray Burst. I’d call it Giganormous Deadly Ray Clusterfrak in Space.
They say “they have never seen anything this bright, long-lasting and variable before.” More than a week after it was located by Swift’s Burst Alert Telescope, it’s still going on with fiery violence. So, what is it? Did Galactus eat the Skrull homeworld? Did the portal to Negative Zone rip open? They don’t know it yet for sure, but they have an idea.
Although research is ongoing, astronomers say that the unusual blast likely arose when a star wandered too close to its galaxy’s central black hole. Intense tidal forces tore the star apart, and the infalling gas continues to stream toward the hole. According to this model, the spinning black hole formed an outflowing jet along its rotational axis. A powerful blast of X- and gamma rays is seen if this jet is pointed in our direction.
After Swift alerted of the burst on March 28, Chandra was turned to the source along with Hubble and dozens of Earth-based telescopes. On April 4, Hubble imaged the galaxy in which the explosion is, in the Constellation Draco. Chandra made a 4-hour exposition of the area, and pinpointed the exact location: The centre of the galaxy.
According to Andrew Fruchter—at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore—”we know of objects in our own galaxy that can produce repeated bursts, but they are thousands to millions of times less powerful than the bursts we are seeing now. This is truly extraordinary.” The fireworks keep going on, with the explosion brightening more than five times since April 3.
The astronomers believe that the X-rays we are seeing “may be coming from matter moving near the speed of light in a particle jet that forms as the star’s gas falls toward the black hole.” We are watching the event head on.
But don’t worry: Since the explosion is located 3.8 billion light years from Earth, those deadly rays and the other radioactive nasty stuff is not getting anywhere near us. And besides, we have enough radioactive crap going wild in our own planet. [NASA]