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Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Courtesy of ESA/NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center 

UW-Madison researcher measures unprecedented gamma ray burst, sparks new galactic insight

University of Wisconsin-Madison astronomer Dr. Sebastian Heinz broke down the significance and meaning behind a historic gamma ray explosion.

 A gamma-ray burst known as GRB 221009A was recorded on Oct. 9 as the brightest burst of radiation ever detected, giving University of Wisconsin-Madison astronomers a new understanding of the Milky Way galaxy and how subatomic particles interact with matter in space.  

Gamma ray bursts are explosions that occur due to the death of a massive star, believed to be created during the formation of a black hole. 

The signal from the GRB 221009A burst traveled roughly 1.9 billion years prior to reaching Earth, according to NASA

Sebastian Heinz is an astronomy professor at UW-Madison who specializes in interstellar dust and X-rays in space. While gamma ray bursts are not rare, this burst was especially significant due to its illumination, Heinz told The Daily Cardinal. 

“Scientists originally thought it was in our own galaxy because it was so bright,” Heinz said. “It was so bright that some of the instruments were completely overwhelmed and saturated.” 

Gamma is one of seven wavelengths on the electromagnetic spectrum of light. Gamma rays have the shortest wavelength and the highest energy. These bursts of movement emit all wavelengths including X-rays, according to Heinz. 

The brightest concentration of X-rays traveled on a direct path, UW-Madison astronomers reported. Other X-rays “collided with dust in clouds,” lagging them minutes to days behind the initial flash.

Cosmic dust is made up of different elements, according to NASA. There is “dust” between stars called an interstellar medium. This dust is what people and planets are made of, Heinz said. 

Heinz used the X-rays’ geometry and lag behind the burst to determine the prompt of the burst and where the dust clouds were located. He found the X-rays arriving behind the first flash showed up as rings around the busts’ focal point.  

“The dust is like a mirror, right? It's not like a nicely polished mirror, but each dust screen can reflect the X rays in different directions,” Heinz said. “Suppose that this gets deflected in our direction. If it's uniformly distributed, there aren’t clouds and we just see a diffuse glow. But, if things happen at a particular distance, the dust makes a ring.”

The rings allow scientists to measure the distance directly from Earth and height above the disk of the galaxy for scores of dust clouds, according to Heinz. 

Dust is fundamental because it shields molecules from nearby ultraviolet light during star formation. This allows the gas to stay in molecular form, become colder and condense to form a star and planets around it, he added.

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“You call it planetesimals — or little building blocks that coagulate to make bigger and bigger chunks of stuff,” Heinz said. “In the planetary disk, that then eventually forms planets,” Heinz said. 

Scientists at the IceCube Neutrino Observatory in Antarctica observed whether this gamma burst is a possible source of neutrinos. 

A neutrino is a subatomic particle. Although similar to an electron, a neutrino has no electrical charge due to its small mass — which “might even be zero,” according to Scientific American. They are one of the most abundant particles in the universe but are difficult to detect because of their low interaction with matter. 

“When [neutrinos] fly through water or the Earth or some large volume of stuff, they actually get stopped,” Heinz said. “They interact, and that's the principle of the IceCube Neutrino detector or telescope.”

There are billions of neutrinos zipping through humans every second coming from the sun. There must be a highly energetic event to make neutrinos, making gamma bursts a candidate, according to Heinz. 

But no neutrinos were detected during this gamma burst, Heinz said.

“There weren't any neutrinos found from this gamma burst, which is interesting because [when] we see gamma rays and typically, whenever you make neutrinos, you also make gamma rays,” he added. 

Heinz claimed this burst is essential to improving knowledge on gamma bursts and the Milky Way’s composition. 

“Ultimately, this is important because it allows us to study the galaxy, but it's also [a] fundamental building block in the galaxy because you have to have dust to form stars and planets,” Heinz said.

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Ava Menkes

Ava Menkes is the state news editor at The Daily Cardinal. She has covered multiple stories about Wisconsin politics and written in-depth about nurses unions and youth voter turnout. Follow her on Twitter at @AvaMenkes.

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