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Gamma-Ray Bursts

April 18, 2016

LAUNCH CONTROL: 2, 1, zero, and lift-off of the space shuttle Atlantis and the gamma-ray observatory, seeking out the explosive forces of the universe. [:10]

Twenty-five years ago this month, NASA launched its second Great Observatory — a space telescope sensitive to gamma rays, the most powerful form of electromagnetic energy. Compton Gamma Ray Observatory was designed to study some of the most energetic objects in the universe, including exploding stars and the super-hot disks of gas around black holes.

One of its key goals was to help astronomers understand the nature of gamma-ray bursts — brilliant outbursts that typically last from a fraction of a second up to a few minutes.

The first of these eruptions were discovered in the 1960s. But it took astronomers a while to begin to understand their nature.

They all appear to come from far beyond our own galaxy. That means they must be incredibly bright. In fact, a gamma-ray burst can emit more energy in a few seconds than our Sun will produce in its entire 10-billion-year lifetime.

Compton observatory discovered more than 2600 of these outbursts. And it helped astronomers realize that they fall into two major categories — outbursts that last no more than two seconds, and those that last longer than two seconds.

That may sound like a minor distinction, but it’s not. The two types appear to be produced by completely different types of events. More about that tomorrow.


Script by Damond Benningfield

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