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8th January, 2007

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Cosmic supermegaexplosion

As often happens in science, it's happened again. Just when astronomers thought they had the decades-old puzzle of gamma ray bursts worked out at least in fundamentals, a new discovery has upset the applecart. For many years astronomers marveled at the short, sharp bursts of gamma rays that go off like unimaginably huge flash bulbs, lasting from milliseconds to 10 or more seconds (the longest lasted for sixteen minutes). Over forty theories had been propounded about the nature of these celestial beasts. For years they were puzzled about two questions in particular:

1. was the source of these bursts close by in our own galaxy or out in the farthest reaches of space?
2. what mechanism generates the flashes?

The first question was answered decisively in 1997 bursts begin their careers in deep space. When the amount of energy reaching earth was computed against the distance it had traveled, astronomers were astonished to discover that many bursts involved an amount of energy equal to that radiated by a million trillion suns in the same time period! And earth-bound instruments generally pick up one or two of these events every day. What's going on out there? (Or should we say, what went on? The events that gave birth to these flashes generally occurred billions of years ago.) Discoveries occurring as the 20th century pivoted into the 21st century enabled Gehrels and others to say in 2002,

Over the past five years, observations have revealed that bursts are the birth throes of black holes. Most of the holes are probably created when a massive star collapses, releasing a pulse of radiation that can be seen billions of light-years

away (The Brightest Explosions in the Universe, Scientific American).

Black holes form when particularly massive stars collapse in on themselves when the ratio between outward-pushing forces of colliding gas particles and the inward-pulling force of gravity reaches a certain threshold as the star's fuel reserves diminish with age. When that happens, a star collapses in on itself setting up a local (relatively speaking) cosmic catastrophe known as a supernova. Astronomers grew confident that gamma ray bursts are generated during the series of complex phenomena associated with such a supernova when they found evidence that gamma ray bursts are associated with supernovas.

But this theory has now been called into question, as National Geographic News reports:

But a gamma-ray burst observed by NASA's Swift satellite on June 14, 2006, defies any currently known theories, because it reveals no evidence of an associated supernova. "The fact that this one didn't [associate with a supernova] is making us rethink our whole idea of what can cause gamma-ray bursts," said Neil Gehrels of the NASA Goddard Spaceflight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

Back to the drawing board. No matter how smart our big heads may be, the genius of God keeps them guessing. Perhaps one day the mystery of gamma ray bursts will be resolved once and for all and be turned into a marvel of the highest magnitude. Mystery or marvel, these staggering signals from space attest to the infinite power and genius of the One Who created all things (Rom 1:20).

See "Massive Cosmic Explosion Has Astronomers Stumped" for more about this recent discovery.

See the Dawn to Dusk book excerpt "Brighter than a million suns" for further background on gamma ray bursts


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