16 January 2019

Catching a glimpse of the gamma-ray burst engine

Gamma-ray bursts

A gamma-ray burst registered in December of 2017 turns out to be “one of the closets GRBs ever observed”. The discovery is featured in Nature – and it has yielded valuable information about the formation of the most luminous phenomenon in the universe. Scientists from the Niels Bohr Institute at the University of Copenhagen helped carrying out the analysis.

Jonatan Selsing frequently receives text messages from a certain sender regarding events in space. It happens all around the clock, and when his cell phone goes ‘beep’ he knows that yet another gamma-ray burst (GRB) notification has arrived. Which, routinely, raises the
question: Does this information - originating from the death of a massive star way back, millions if not billions of years ago – merit further investigation?

The development in a dying star until the gamma ray burst forms. Attribution: National Science Foundation
The development in a dying star until the gamma ray burst
forms. Attribution: National Science Foundation

Gamma ray bursts – bright signals from space

“GRBs represent the brightest phenomenon known to science – the luminous intensity of a single GRB may in fact exceed that of all stars combined! And at the same time GRBs – which typically last just a couple of seconds – represent one of the best sources available, when it comes to gleaning information about the initial stages of our universe”, explains Jonatan Selsing.

He is astronomer and postdoc at Cosmic Dawn Center at the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen. And he is one of roughly 100 astronomers in a global network set up to ensure that all observational resources needed can be instantaneously mobilized when the GRB-alarm goes off.

Quick action must be taken when a gamma ray burst is registered

The alarm sits on board the international Swift-telescope which was launched in 2004 - and has orbited Earth ever since with the mission of registering GRBs. Swift is capable of constantly observing one third of the night sky, and when the telescope registers a GRB – which on average happens a couple of times per week – it will immediately text the 100 astronomers. The message will tell where in space the GRB has been observed – whereupon the astronomer on duty must make a here-and-now decision:

Is there reason to assume that this specific GRB is of such importance that we should ask the VLT-telescope in Chile to immediately take a closer look at it? Or should we consider the information from Swift sheer routine, and leave it at that?

On December 5th 2017 – just around 09 o’clock in the morning Copenhagen time – the GRB-alarm went off. Luca Izzo, Italian astronomer, was on duty – and Izzo did not harbor the slightest doubt: He right away alerted VLT - the Very Large Telescope in Chile – which is run by 11 European countries, including Germany, Great Britain, Italy, France, Sweden and Denmark.

At that time it was early in the morning in Chile - 05 o’clock – and dawn was rapidly approaching, tells Jonatan Selsing: “For VLT to take a closer look at the GRB, action had to be taken immediately - since the telescope is only capable of working against a background of the night sky. And fortunately this was exactly what happened, when Izzo contacted VLT”.

This is also why Luca Izzo is listed as first author of the scientific article describing this GRB – an article which has just been published in Nature, one of the world’s most influential scientific journals. The article is based on analyses of the VLT-recordings, and the recordings reveal that this GRB in more than one respect can be described as unusual, says Jonatan Selsing:

“Not least because this is one of the closest GRBs ever observed. GRB171205A - which has since become the official name of this gamma-ray burst – originated a mere 500 million years ago, and has ever since traveled through space at the speed of light, i.e. at 300.000 kilometer per second”.
Working closely with a number of his colleagues at the Niels Bohr Institute, Jonatan Selsing contributed to the Nature-article with an analysis which - put simply - represents “a glimpse” of the very engine behind a gamma-ray burst.

Gamma ray bursts are the results of violent events in space

When a massive star – rotating at very high speed – dies, its core may collapse, thus creating a so-called black hole. A massive star may weigh up to 300 times more than the Sun, and due to combustion the star is transforming light elements to heavier elements. This process, which takes place in the core, is the source of energy not only in massive stars, but in all stars.

Ashes – the by-product of combustion – may over time become such a heavy load that a massive star can no longer carry its own weight, which is why it finally collapses. When that happens, the outer layers will gradually fall towards the core – towards the black hole – at which point a disc is formed.

Due to the star’s rotation, the disc will function as a dynamo creating a gigantic magnetic field – which will emit two jets, both going away from the black hole at a velocity close to the speed of light. During this process, the dying star is also releasing – spewing – matter, which lightens up with extreme intensity.
This light is the very gamma-ray burst – the GRB itself. And the matter which is released from the center of the star is set free in the form of a so-called jet cocoon.

The gamma ray burst confirms our assumptions about the elements stars produce

“One of the unique features of GRB171205A is that it proved possible to determine which elements this gamma-ray burst released via the jet cocoon 500 million years ago. That was measured here at the Niels Bohr Institute, and that is our contribution to the Nature-article. These measurements were carried out via X-shooter – an extremely sensitive piece of equipment mounted on the VLT-telescope”, says Jonatan Selsing.

X-shooter analyzed the VLT-footage of the gamma-ray burst – and this analysis led to the conclusion that the jet cocoon from GRB171205A contained iron, cobalt and nickel which had formed in the center of the star, explains Jonatan Selsing:

“This corresponds with our theoretical expectations – and therefore also corroborates our model for a star-collapse of this magnitude. Being able to establish that it actually did happen in this way is, however, really special. That’s when you get a glimpse of the very engine behind a gamma-ray burst”.

The work is now published in the scientific magazine Nature, and the co-authors are: Jonathan Selsing, Johan Fynbo, Jens Hjorth and Daniele Malesani from the Niels Bohr Institute, Giorgos Leloudas from the Technical University of Denmark and Kasper Heintz from University of Iceland

Read the scientific article in Nature.