Extreme energy: Just over a week ago, the strongest gamma-ray burst ever detected hit the earth – it had the enormous energy of 18 teraelectron volts, as NASA reports. The source of the cosmic gamma and X-rays is an outburst about two billion light-years away.

However, what triggered this is still unclear. The birth of a black hole through the collapse of a massive star or a neutron star collision would be conceivable.

Gamma-ray bursts are the brightest and most energetic explosions in the cosmos: in a matter of seconds, they can release as much radiation as our sun does in its entire lifetime. Some of them were even visible in the sky with the naked eye.

The cause of such outbursts are collisions of neutron stars or a core-collapse supernova of very massive stars. But there are also gamma-ray bursts, the source of which has not yet been clarified.

Now astronomers have detected the strongest gamma-ray burst to date. The high-energy pulse of radiation raced through the solar system on October 9, 2022 and also struck Earth. Several gamma-ray observatories, including NASA’s Fermi and Swift space telescopes, detected the enormous burst of radiation.

The Large High Altitude Air Shower Observatory (LHAASO) in China registered more than 5,000 photons with an energy of up to 18 teraelectron volts.

This makes this gamma-ray pulse, dubbed GRB 221009A, by far the most energetic ever detected on Earth. Only a handful of the gamma-ray bursts observed so far have reached energies of more than one teraelectronvolt, and so far none have reached more than ten.

“We also call this burst BOAT, short for Brightest Of All Time, because it stands out clearly from the thousands of gamma-ray bursts that telescopes have detected since the 1990s,” explains Jillian Rastinejad of Northwestern University.

The astronomers see the event itself as the reason for the enormous intensity on the one hand, and the relatively small distance on the other. Because the massive explosion that produced these gamma rays occurred only about 2.4 billion light-years away, as observations of its afterglow with the Gemini South telescope in Chile, among others, showed. This is significantly closer than most long gamma-ray bursts.

According to the astronomers, this could also explain why the gamma-ray pulse lasted for an unusually long time: the Fermi telescope registered the gamma-ray radiation for more than ten hours, the afterglow in the longer-wavelength infrared and radio-wave regions of the spectrum still persists. “Not only is GRB 221009A exceptionally long and bright, its afterglow also breaks records in all wavelengths,” says Brendan O’Connor of the University of Maryland.

The cause of this record breakout is still unclear. According to the astronomers, however, it is very likely that the high-energy radiation was produced when a massive star collapsed in a particularly strong supernova. The resulting black hole produced jets of rays in which particles were accelerated to almost the speed of light. This in turn released the high-energy radiation.

“Because this gamma-ray burst is so bright and close, this is a once-in-a-century opportunity for us to study some of the fundamental questions about such explosions – from black hole formation to testing dark matter models,” says O’Connor. Roberta Pillera of the Fermi LAT collaboration sees it similarly: “Because this burst took place much closer than typical gamma-ray bursts, we can see many details in the data that would otherwise be too faint to be visible.”

Despite its enormous intensity, the gamma-ray burst posed no danger to Earth or humanity. However, the strong influx of high-energy particles caused turbulence in the Earth’s ionosphere, which in turn led to disruptions in long-wave radio communication, as NASA reports.

Those: NASA, NOIRlab

This article was written by Nadja Podbregar

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